Olsen’s next quest to inspire budding scientists
Photo by Dan Addison
|Greg Olsen at U.Va. on Nov. 8.
By Matt Kelly
Just weeks after returning from space, alumnus Greg Olsen explained to a packed audience in Newcomb Hall Theater on Nov. 8 that “without U.Va., I would not have gotten into space.” Citing the education he received here, he summarized, “I had a lot of people up there with me.”
Olsen, 60, became the world’s third citizen space explorer on Oct. 1, when he began more than a hundred orbits of Earth. He spent eight of his 10 days in space aboard the International Space Station, where he performed three experiments to study the body’s reaction to the absence of gravity. A 1971 Ph.D. graduate in materials science, Olsen praised his alma mater and teachers William A. Jesser, chairman of materials science, and professor emeritus Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf.
Olsen also lauded fellow alumnus Eric Anderson (Class of 1997), co-founder, president and CEO of Space Adventures, the company that organized the spaceflights for the world’s first three private space explorers. Anderson shared the stage with Olsen for part of the talk.
Olsen completed 900 hours of training in the Russian system for his flight and says he has immense respect for the professionals who fly machines like the Space Shuttle.
Always fascinated by space, Olsen said he was inspired to visit the space station, which orbits with a Russian cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut, after reading a New York Times account of Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. Olsen, who sold his fiber optic business, Sensors Unlimited, Inc, in 2000, and paid $20 million for his flight into space, said his generation “bought into” President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
While the trip to the moon had been a race with the Soviet Union, Olsen predicted the next leap, a trip to Mars, will be an international effort.
The space station is important to the Mars effort, he said, because it is a laboratory for learning how to live in space. There is a lot to adjust to in the weightless environment, Olsen said, noting he slept vertically, in a sleeping bag tethered to the wall.
While the space station operates arbitrarily on Greenwich Mean Time, Olsen said the orbiter circles the earth 16 times a day, giving them a sunrise and sunset every hour and a half. “You lose all sense of day and night,” he said.
When not sleeping, the view out the window was stellar. In space, more stars are visible. He also was impressed by the sight of Earth, a blue sphere surrounded by a 10-mile atmosphere like a protective eggshell against the black of space. “You see how fragile it is and you think ‘We live on this,’” he said.
It was more than a sightseeing tour for Olsen, who conducted experiments in spine compression, and for the presence of bacteria in a spacecraft. He had planned an experiment with a spectrometer from U.Va.’s astronomy department, but the required camera, built by Olsen’s company, was not cleared for the flight. The spectrometer is still in orbit, and Olsen hopes to eventually complete the experiments. As a way of thanks, Olsen presented the astronomy department with a U.Va. pennant he carried to the space station with him.
Olsen’s new mission is to bring his space experiences to elementary students. He wants to awe them with gloves he wore in space and encourage them to study math and science to be able to follow in his footsteps.
Olsen called the trip life-changing. “It was like magic,” he said. “You can study this in physics, but to actually be the experiment yourself … I carry an obligation to share this with people.”