Greg Olsen: Space Tourist

The IEEE Fellow paid his own way to the International Space Station

18 November 2015

As part of this year’s IEEE Day celebration on 6 October, IEEE members and their guests enjoyed free visits to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, in New York City. There, they could explore a number of technological achievements made possible by the work of engineers, including that of IEEE Fellow Gregory Olsen. A decade ago, he paid his own way to travel to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket. The cramped Soyuz capsule he flew in is now on display at the museum. Visitors can see its details and wear and tear up close and ask the museum guide questions about the trip.

Olsen, then 60, became the world’s third private citizen to take a trip into space. He paid a hefty US $20 million to blast off in the Russian Soyuz rocket and spend eight days in the International Space Station. He says it was worth every penny.

“It was magic,” he says. “I was exhilarated when the rocket blasted off. It was thrilling to see Earth, this big, glowing blue sphere, from space.”

He was just 12 years old when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. That historic event sparked the start of the Space Age and, like most kids of his generation, traveling to outer space became Olsen’s quest. “A dream I never thought I’d fulfill,” he says. But his wish came true in October 2005, almost 48 years to the day after Sputnik’s launch.

The physicist and engineer could well afford to take the trip. He founded and sold two optoelectronics companies, becoming a multimillionaire.

MOVING ON UP

Olsen was sitting in a Starbucks in 2003 when he came across a newspaper article about Space Adventures, a private U.S. space tourism company that offered space flights to U.S. citizens through the Russian Federal Space Agency. “I contacted the program, and the next thing I knew, I was at a training center,” he says.

The Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, in Star City, Russia, is equipped with full-size spaceship models, underwater training facilities, and centrifuges to simulate zero-gravity weightlessness. Olsen’s six-month training program began in June 2004.

“It was a combination of military training and college,” he says. On a typical day, he awoke at 6 a.m., ran 3.2 kilometers (2 miles), and attended technical training all day, with homework to complete at night. The training included learning to use the computers, radio systems, vacuum systems, and pressure gauges in the shuttle spacecraft and space station.

He also underwent weightlessness training, zero-gravity flight training in a free-falling airplane that made passengers weightless for 30 seconds, and emergency drills for such procedures as opening spacecraft hatches in a hurry and using fire extinguishers. His engineering skills came in handy, he says. “Anyone with an engineering background is well equipped for space travel. The hardest part was learning Russian.”

On 1 October 2005, Olsen went up with NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev. After two days on the cramped Soyuz capsule, the three men docked at the ISS. There, Olsen performed biological experiments for the European Space Agency and made three 12-minute live-video broadcasts sent to Princeton University, where he counsels faculty and students in their entrepreneurial endeavors and funds business startups, and his company Sensors Unlimited. He likens being on the space station to camping, with no running water, tight sleeping spaces, and freeze-dried meals.

In this video, Greg Olsen has a drink of water in zero gravity.

During descent in the 2-meter-tall, 2-meter-diameter Soyuz capsule, Olsen’s wits and training were tested when a leak led to a loss of the crew’s oxygen. Olsen had to open the emergency oxygen valve because he was the only one who could reach it. “I knew the drill, and I watched the pressure gauge going up until the oxygen levels were stabilized again,” he says. 

COMING OF AGE

Olsen was born in Brooklyn, in New York City, in 1945. As a young boy, he wanted to be an electrician like his father. “That equated to being a TV repairman, which back in the 1950s was the equivalent of being an IT guy,” he says.

Then came Sputnik, which sparked an emphasis on math, science, and engineering at his school. Despite failing trigonometry and getting poor grades in high school, Olsen persuaded the registrar at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, N.J., to admit him. Olsen earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1966. He received a second bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in physics, both in 1968.

Olsen switched to materials science for his Ph.D., awarded by the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, in 1971. The combination of physics, electronics, and metallurgy—a branch of science concerned with the properties of metals and their production—was alluring, he says. He studied crystal transformations in steel, using heat and chemical treatments to control the metal’s properties.

After a one-year postdoctoral stint at the University of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa, Olsen joined RCA Laboratories, in Princeton, N.J., as a research scientist. There, he applied his crystal-formation expertise to semiconductors. He was one of the first to work with InGaAs crystal and grew uniform, defect-free crystals, which he made into photodetectors. For his contributions, he was the first person to be awarded the IEEE Photonics Society’s Aron Kressel Award, in 2000.

In 1984, Olsen left RCA to cofound Epitaxx, which made detectors for fiber-optic communication systems, in Trenton, N.J. Optical communication company Nippon Sheet Glass, in Edison, N.J., acquired the privately held company for $12 million in 1990. A year later, back in Princeton, Olsen cofounded Sensors Unlimited to make near-infrared cameras. In 2000, that company was purchased for $600 million by Finisar Corp., a manufacturer of optical communication components and subsystems in Sunnyvale, Calif. Olsen bought Sensors Unlimited back in 2002 for $6 million and resold it three years later to Goodrich, in Charlotte, N.C., for $60 million.

Olsen is now president of GHO Ventures, an angel investment firm, in Princeton.

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