Interview with Gregory Olsen
Third space "tourist" talks to SpaceFuture
by G B Leatherwood
Greg Olsen was the third private citizen to orbit the earth on the International Space Station ( ISS). After training for five months (900 hours) at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow, he launched on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the Soyuz TMA-7, on October 1, 2006, with cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev and astronaut Bill McArthur (Expedition 12). He then docked to the ISS on October 3 and returned to earth on Soyuz TMA-6 on October 11 with Cosmonaut Sergei Krikatev and Astronaut John Phillips (Expedition 11).
Olsen performed more than 150 orbits of the earth and logged almost a million miles of weightless travel during his 10 days in space.
After an illustrious career as a research scientist and entrepreneur, Greg is now president of GHO Ventures in Princeton, NJ, where he manages his angel investments, South African winery, Montana ranch and performs numerous speaking engagements to encourage children—especially minorities and females—to consider careers in science and engineering.
Space Future Journal (SFJ): Dr. Olsen, thank you for agreeing to make time in what must be a hectic schedule to answer a few questions for our readers.
First, some comments on the difference between “space tourist” and “astronaut.” You spent five months (900 hours) in the process of preparing for your trip to the International Space Station ( ISS.) How does that compare with the same process for an astronaut?
Dr. Olsen (GHO): Astronauts train for many years. They are trained to fly and maintain the vehicle in addition to performing space walks and experiments. “Space tourists”—I prefer the term “Space Participant”—primarily are trained in emergency and safety procedures, in addition to life support. However, all people who travel in space must meet a certain criteria for health, physical fitness, and procedures awareness.
SFJ: You and the other space participants paid your own way. Astronauts are generally employees of governments. Is this one of the major differences?
GHO: Yes. They get paid to go into space.
SFJ: You planned to conduct serious experiments within your professional field during your stay on the ISS. Astronauts also conduct experiments, but maintain the ISS and participate in construction. Do you see this as another difference between “astronaut” and “space participant”?
GHO: No. Most astronauts/cosmonauts have advanced technical degrees and are capable of conducting complicated scientific experiments. Often the time they can spend on these is limited by the pressing needs to operate and maintain the space vehicle. Do remember that some astronauts go as “mission specialists” whose primary duty is related to the mission, rather than flying/operating the vehicle.
SFJ: In the near future, both sub-orbital and eventually orbital flights will be offered for the pure pleasure of experiencing weightlessness and the views of both Earth and space. These participants will neither conduct experiments nor work on the vehicles. Do you see this as producing a third category of space traveler between professional astronaut and experimenter?
GHO: Yes. The training for the upcoming Virgin Galactic sub-orbital flights is several days, rather than the six months that space participants are required to train.
SFJ: Now I’d like to ask a couple questions about the results of your trip. First, the trip to the ISS was clearly a unique and unforgettable experience. In view of your interest in getting young people—especially minorities and females—interested in science and engineering, how has this experience changed how you present the challenges and opportunities to those you speak to?
GHO: I tell them how I didn’t have an “ideal” background and certainly was no straight-A student. But I never gave up—that is what is important in life.
SFJ: According to one source, you planned to conduct experiments in remote sensing and astronomy while aboard the ISS. In lay terms, what were the experiments and what were the results? Any implications (that you can talk about) for future business ventures?
GHO: For complicated reasons, I was not able to do the ambitious scientific program that I originally had planned. However, I did medical experiments for the European Space Agency.
SFJ: Thank you again for your time and comments. It’s both an honor and a pleasure to hear directly from someone who has had what must be the adventure of a lifetime. We hope young people will not only pay attention to what you and the other space participants have to say but will accept the challenges of pushing the boundaries of the next frontier.