NEW YORK — The next civilian to be rocketed into orbit at his own expense won’t just be enjoying the ride: Gregory Olsen, a scientist who made a fortune with optics inventions, plans to do some research during his $20 million trip to the International Space Station.
Olsen, the founder of Sensors Unlimited, Inc. in Princeton, N.J., has hired the company that brokered the first space tourist trip, millionaire Dennis Tito’s flight aboard a Russian spacecraft in 2001.
The 58-year-old Olsen told the Associated Press he plans to bring along infrared sensors, which detect varying levels of heat, to analyze pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere and the health of agricultural systems on the ground.
“I kind of feel this is a way of paying back,” he said. The remote sensing experiment is “really what the buzz is for me,” he said, “as well as the kick of being in space for a week.”
Olsen also hopes the weightlessness of space will help him grow better versions of special crystals used in infrared sensors and other high-tech applications, though he hasn’t finalized these plans.
He plans to publish his findings in scientific journals.
The entrepreneur said he has no worries for his safety, even with memories of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster fresh in his mind.
“Every day, you pick up the paper and read there’s an auto accident, or an airplane accident. And still you use both of those things,” he said. “I never even think about it when I get on a plane.”
Olsen, who is divorced and single with a house in Princeton and a condo in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, said his two grown daughters are supportive of the mission.
He leaves for Star City, Russia, this week to begin six months of training for his flight aboard the Soyuz to the ISS. The eight-day voyage is scheduled for April 2005, but there’s a chance he could go this October.
The trip’s $20 million price is what Tito paid in 2001 and South African Mark Shuttleworth paid in 2002 for strictly tourist trips.
Eric Anderson, chief executive of Space Adventures, of Arlington, Va., would not elaborate on his company’s financial arrangement with the Russian government.
Space Adventures hopes to eventually send two tourist aboard a Soyuz flight flown by a Russian cosmonaut. That would mean there would be no room to bring a cosmonaut or astronaut home from the ISS on the return flight, so someone’s ISS mission would be extended from six months to one year.
Unlike Lance Bass, the pop singer who wanted to ride a Russian rocket to space but couldn’t come up with the funds, Olsen says he has more than enough to cover the costs.
His research into crystals, part of which was funded by NASA, led to devices that help fiber-optic networks perform more efficiently. He sold his company, Sensors Unlimited, to optical-network parts-maker Finisar Corp. for $700 million in 2000.
“You’ll have to check with my Merrill Lynch advisers for an accurate number,” he joked. “I was very fortunate in that deal.”