Crouched in a metal compartment little bigger than a shower stall, Greg Olsen heard the voice in his earpiece count down in Russian as the powerful engines rumbled:
Launching in one minute … launching in 30 seconds … launching in 10 seconds …
And the 60-year-old New Jersey businessman was sucked into his seat at more than three times the force of gravity as rockets pushed the Soyuz capsule into the air. Within eight minutes, he had shot up more than 200 miles, dazzled by the blue Earth below and vast blackness around him.
Last month, after paying $20 million to an American company that acts as a go-between with Russian officials, Olsen became the third private citizen in outer space.
“Every day, I would wake up and say, ‘Is this really true?’ ” he said.
The trip lasted 10 days, eight of them aboard the International Space Station. He took off from Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union, with a Russian cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut who were heading for a six-month stint aboard the station. He came back with a pair who had finished their tour of duty.
Some refer to such ventures as space “tourism.” But Olsen, who could afford the ticket after a successful high-tech career, said he did not like the term because the trip had required hard work and preparation.
Now he is so fired up by the experience that he wants to devote his time to telling schoolchildren about it, the idea being to encourage them to study math and science.
Space travel was never the plan until one day in June 2003, just four months after the Columbia space shuttle accident killed seven astronauts. Sitting at a Starbucks cafe in Princeton, N.J., near his home, Olsen read a newspaper article about Space Adventures, a company in Arlington, Va., that had sent two customers into space.
He called the company that day. He went to the former Soviet Union a few months later to watch a Soyuz launch, and made his decision.
“I was sort of looking for the next chapter of my life,” he said. “I’ve never been a huge long-term planner.”
Olsen said he had no qualms about entrusting his life to a space program that is short on cash. The Soyuz is a rugged, no-frills affair with a good safety record. Unlike the shuttle, it is not designed for reuse and is too small to carry cargo.
Olsen said life in space was unforgettable. Though the crew’s schedule was busy, Olsen had four hours a day when he could float in front of the window, getting an incomparable view of the stars. The station orbits Earth 16 times a day; he got to see a sunrise every 90 minutes.
Olsen, a lean 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds, did not get motion sickness from being weightless but did have to make adjustments. Because liquids have a way of dispersing in zero gravity, space food can’t be too watery and has “the consistency of dog food,” he said, adding that one meal of reconstituted shrimp cocktail wasn’t bad. He slept vertically in a sleeping bag, strapped to a wall.
Now back in New Jersey, he acknowledged that he would never top this experience. But he is excited about spreading the word to more children, having already spoken to some while in space via radio.
“As all the astronauts tell you,” he said, “whatever you think now, once you get up there, it’s better.”