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Olsen tells tales of outer space

Greg Olsen became the third private citizen to orbit the earth back in October 2005.

Greg Olsen had two dreams when he was a kid—to play first base for the Dodgers and to travel into space.

On Oct. 1, 2005, at the age of 60, Olsen was finally able to cross off one of his life-long goals as he became the third private citizen to orbit the earth on the International Space Station.

“In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to orbit the earth. It was a big craze and all of our teachers would say ‘You’ve got to study math, you’ve got to study science,’” Olsen said. “And that was the beginning of my awareness of space.”

Olsen, a pioneer researcher and entrepreneur, discussed his 10-day voyage recently at Lehigh in a talk titled “My Space Voyage.” The address, which was sponsored by the Lehigh student chapter of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE), gave an in-depth look at Olsen’s rigorous training and his experience orbiting the earth 10 times.

The event, held in the Rauch Business Center, attracted students from Lehigh, Northampton Community College and the College of New Jersey, as well as a local Cub Scouts troop.

In June 2003, sitting in a Starbucks cafe in Princeton, N.J., Olsen read about a company called Space Adventures. One year and $20 million dollars of his money later, he traveled to the Yuri Gagarin Russian State Science Research Center Cosmonaut Training Center to begin six months of training to prepare for his launch into space. The center, which is also known as Star City, is located about 40 miles from Moscow and is named for the first human being to orbit the earth.

Back to school

“It was kind of funny,” Olsen said of his training. “I was a student once again. I had to take classes.”

Not only did Olsen train himself mentally, but he also began each day at 6 a.m. with a run around a lake in Star City.

“You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to be in space,” Olsen said, “but you do have to be in reasonable shape.”

Olsen was not trained to fly the vehicle, but he learned to effectively work together with other crew members and became proficient in all of the emergency and safety procedures.

“I didn’t want to be a burden on the crew,” Olsen said. “We all had duties, so if something went wrong each person knew exactly what they were doing. We trained over and over, simulating fires, pressure leaks, and toxic gas leaks.”

With cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev and astronaut Bill McArthur, the “Space Cowboys,” as Olsen affectionately referred to his crew, launched into space on Oct. 1, 2005, aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket TMA-7.

“We had to stay in that position for 2-1/2 hours before lift-off and remained strapped into those positions for hours after the actual launch,” Olsen says. “I’m not ashamed to tell you that we all wore Huggies diapers and we all used them.”

Showing the video of the launch, Olsen explained his emotions during the launch in three words: “It felt great!”

Two days after the initial launch, the crew finally reached and docked at the International Space Station.

“You can’t just go up there and crash at the station,” Olsen says, “You have to do many orbits.”

Olsen spent the next days taking biological samples, documenting his trip through videos and photos and even educating students from space.

“I talked to Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, where I was born, to Ridgefield Park High School in New Jersey, where I graduated, and to Princeton High,” Olsen said.

Olsen said weightlessness affects astronauts’ muscles, but that he was not bothered because of his limited amount of time in space—just 10 days.

“The long timers do 2 ½ hours every day of exercise.” Olsen said. “Some guys actually come back stronger than they left.”

Although weightlessness can cause problems for space travelers, including calcium loss and back pain, Olsen didn’t seem to mind.

“I took to it, I loved it,” Olsen said. “So I didn’t have any problems.”

“I would just float around”

The lights on the shuttle went out at 11 p.m. and the cosmonauts and astronauts woke up at 8 a.m. Being a light sleeper, Olsen found himself waking up hours before the others on board. During this time he was able to take in his surroundings and enjoy this experience.

“It was great because I had the whole place to myself,” he said. “I would just float around.”

Olsen says his crew members allowed his experience to surpass his expectations because of their superior knowledge and their ability to trust him.

“They gave me a lot of freedom,” said Olsen.

Olsen’s return to the earth was a physically exhausting experience, leaving him in quarantine for four days after landing in Kazakhstan.

“If you make a sudden turn, you were just spinning so we were kept in quarantine—in my case for about four days. The other guys, who had been weightless for six months, had about a three-week quarantine.”

Olsen said his space journey was a perfect example of what education and persistence can do. He encourages everyone to push forward with their own childhood goals whether it is to become the Dodgers first baseman or even an astronaut—just like he did.

“The average age for a space person is probably 40 to 55. The advantage to that is again, don’t give up. If you don’t get to fly when you’re 25 years old, there is always 40 … or 60 like me.”

Olsen’s address at Lehigh was co-sponsored by the university’s student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Faculty with the Center for Optical Technologies and the department of electrical and computer engineering, also gave support.

--Madelyn King

Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2007

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