Greg Olsen got a lot of bang for his tourism buck in 2005.
Twenty million dollars bought the New Jersey entrepreneur a Russian ride to the International Space Station that yielded magnificent snapshots of our blue planet, which he circled more than 150 times in what he likened to an orbital “camping trip.”
By then he had spent five months in Kazakhstan preparing for the rigors of space travel and crash landings.
Along the way, he forged friendships with former Cold Warriors whose scowling portraits and crude technologies masked gregarious personalities and pragmatic efficiency.
Yet the most amazing experience–the one he has revisited in his dreams–was weightlessness.
“It felt like magic. It was a wonderful feeling, and I loved it,” Greg told members of the Renaissance Group of Temple B’Nai Or in Morristown on Wednesday.
He caught the space bug one morning in a Starbucks near his Princeton office. An article about Space Adventures, a space travel agency, piqued his interest.
The prospect of hurtling into the void atop a 20-million-horsepower beast would give pause to most sensible people.
“Yeah, I was scared,” Greg admitted, pausing for effect. “Of anybody in a white coat with a stethoscope.”
He feared being grounded by doctors, who detected a spot on his lung. The spot proved benign, but it took Greg nine tries to convince Russian officials to allow him on the mission. He was 60 at the time.
That sort of persistence is what made Greg rich enough to become the third private citizen on the space station.
The Brooklyn native flunked trigonometry at Ridgefield Park High School. Undaunted, he earned degrees in physics, electrical engineering and materials science from Fairleigh Dickinson University and the University of Virginia, was granted 12 patents, and co-founded Sensors Unlimited Inc., a maker of near-infrared cameras. The company was sold for $600 million in 2000.
As president of GHO Ventures in Princeton, he invests in tech startups and oversees a South African winery and Montana ranch. He has written a book about his space journey, By Any Means Necessary, and gives many talks to youth and minority groups, always stressing the same message:
Don’t give up.
“No matter where you go, you get the answer ‘No’ in various shades,” Greg said. “It’s easy to walk away. But you have to keep pounding away.”
He went with the Russians because NASA quit taking civilians after the Challenger disaster. At first, Greg wasn’t too sure about Russian technology. Gradually he came to appreciate it.
NASA had fancier gas masks, for instance. But the “on” valve was backwards. The Russian version looked awkward but worked well, he said.
NASA transports rockets to the launchpad with specialized vehicles; the Russians tow their rockets on standard train tracks. NASA came up with a high-tech pen that writes upside-down in space. The Russians use pencils, Greg said.
The two programs even use different electrical systems–requiring different firefighting techniques and training for the U.S. and Russian modules of the space station, he said.
But the hardest thing Greg had to master was the Russian language. In second place: The space station’s vacuum-cleaner toilets, which he said gave new meaning to “staying centered.”
He had no religious epiphanies or profound insights, he said, beyond marveling that a kid from Ridgefield Park was beholding the earth from 230 miles above. Motion sickness never troubled him. He credits his poor sense of direction; people with good directional sense seem more prone to nausea when traveling, he suspects.
For him, weightlessness “was like being in a dream world.” Returning to earth, “all my dreams were weightless.”
He wishes more Americans were dreaming about space, the way kids did during the Apollo project. President Obama killed a NASA program that would have returned astronauts to the moon.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t have a vision,” Greg said. “I don’t care if we go to the moon or Mars. Let’s have a goal.”