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Image: Greg Olsen
Tim Johnson  /  Reuters
Private space explorer Greg Olsen gestures during a briefing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Thursday.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/4/2005 8:25:27 PM ET 2005-08-05T00:25:27

Inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen may not be due to go into orbit as the international space station's third paying guest until October, but some of his company's equipment is already at work there.

"I feel like I'm part of it already," the 60-year-old New Jersey millionaire told reporters at NASA's Johnson Space Center on Thursday, during a preview of his Oct. 1 launch aboard a Russian Soyuz craft.

"I'm ready to go, and I'm very excited," he said.

Olsen is to take a seat alongside the space station's next professional crew, NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, as they lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Ten days later, while the new crew gets settled for their six-month tour of duty, Olsen is to return to Earth with the station's current crew, Russia's Sergei Krikalev and NASA's John Phillips.

There's a $20 million price tag for such a passenger flight, which is being purchased from Russia's Federal Space Agency with the aid of Virginia-based Space Adventures. Two other millionaires have paid for similar flights: California's Dennis Tito in 2001 and South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth in 2002.

Scientist, not tourist
Olsen, founder and chairman of New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited, has tried to avoid the label "space tourist," saying that he intends to use the opportunity to make astronomical and Earth observations with his own company's optical and near-infrared sensors.

Sensors Unlimited made one of the near-infrared cameras used to monitor the space shuttle Discovery's ascent last month, and Olsen noted that another one of his firm's sensors was onboard the space station as part of a camera system.

During his own trip to the station, Olsen intends to test a spectrometer built by the University of Virginia, his alma mater, which incorporates parts from Sensors Unlimited. However, Olsen indicated on Thursday that the equipment had not yet been cleared for spaceflight.

"Things are changing daily, just as they are with the shuttle and the ISS," he told reporters.

To be sure, Olsen's interest in the space station trip isn't purely scientific. He said he was "old enough to remember" the exploits of spaceflight's pioneers, including Russia's Yuri Gagarin and NASA's John Glenn, and wished he could go into space himself.

"When I was younger, it was just a dream ... a dream I just never thought I'd get to," he said.

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From dream to reality
But after Tito and Shuttleworth made their flights, Olsen decided that he was in the "right time of my life" to take on his own space adventure — and that he had the wherewithal to follow through on his dream.

"I was looking for the next chapter of my life, and this looks like it's going to be a real big one," he said.

It has taken some time for the plot to build, however: Olsen first began training for the flight more than a year ago, but Russian doctors sidelined him due to unspecified medical concerns. This spring, the doctors said those concerns had been resolved and cleared the way for Olsen to resume training at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex.

Olsen has been visiting Johnson Space Center this week, along with McArthur and Tokarev, for sessions with NASA trainers. When Tito made a similar visit, NASA officials initially took him away from training, leading to a brief boycott by his crewmates. Shuttleworth and Olsen, in contrast, received a warmer reception.

On Thursday, McArthur spoke well of Olsen as well as Tokarev, his Russian crewmate. "We share a lot in common," said McArthur, 54. "We're all three on the wrong side of 50 years old."

What Expedition 12 will do
McArthur is to command Expedition 12 to the space station, which will be devoted to building up the orbital outpost as well as conducting dozens of scientific experiments.

One of the experiments will test small free-flying satellites, as part of a project called SPHERES (an acronym standing for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite). Such satellites could eventually fly in formation to inspect spacecraft or make interferometric observations of distant planetary systems, looking for signs of life.

Image: Soyuz crew at Johnson Space Center
Tim Johnson  /  Reuters
NASA astronaut Bill McArthur, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and space passenger Greg Olsen meet the press at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
McArthur compared the CO2-propelled satellite to the small, spherical training satellite that Obi-Wan Kenobi used to train Luke Skywalker in the original "Star Wars" movie. "The experiment ultimately will include three satellites that fly in relation to one another," he said.

One of Expedition 12's members will be arriving separately: German astronaut Thomas Reiter is due to fly up on Atlantis during the next space shuttle mission and stay aboard for an overlapping six-month stint. Atlantis' launch had been scheduled for September, before the Soyuz launch, but NASA has put the mission on hold while engineers investigate a foam debris problem that arose after Discovery's launch.

McArthur voiced confidence that Reiter would bring the station back to its pre-Columbia complement of three for Expedition 12, although he couldn't predict exactly when Atlantis' launch would occur.

McArthur also said Expedition 12 may well be "the last spaceflight of my career." He told reporters that it was time to give younger astronauts, many of whom have never been in space, the kinds of opportunities that he had. McArthur already has flown on three shuttle missions over the past 12 years.

Olsen was asked whether he'd prefer to fly on the Soyuz or on the space shuttle, particularly in light of the safety concerns surrounding Discovery's current mission.

"I'd be on the first boat that's leaving," he said with a smile. "I'd go on either one of them."

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