September 1, 2005

Entrepreneur Almost Ready for Space Trip

TRENTON, N.J. -- For more than a year, scientist Gregory Olsen has prepared to become the third civilian to visit the International Space Station, and he's itching to blast off.

"I really wish I could go right now," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Russia on Wednesday.

But Olsen and his Russian and American crewmates still have more simulations to do before their Oct. 1 launch, training together in spacesuits inside a mockup of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Soon their contact with others will be limited, and for the final week, completely cut off. "The last thing you'd want to do is catch a flu from someone and not be able to go," Olsen said.

Olsen, 60, is paying $20 million for the trip, brokered by Space Adventures Ltd. of Arlington, Va. The company has sent two other space tourists to the space station through a partnership with Russia's space agency.

Olsen, who has advanced degrees in physics and materials science, made a small fortune on optic inventions. He is the co-founder of Sensors Unlimited Inc., a business in suburban Trenton that makes infrared imaging cameras and fiber-optic communications components.

Olsen hopes to bring one of the company's high-tech cameras with him to do experiments in space and also is arranging for satellite linkups with schoolchildren.

He will be joined on the flight by Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and NASA astronaut William McArthur.

The three are to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and dock two days later with the space station. Olsen will spend a week aboard the station, orbiting 250 miles above Earth, then return with the current space station crew on Oct. 11.

Just three years ago, Olsen would not have been eligible because at 6-foot-1, he was too tall for the Soyuz spacecraft. "The Russians recently extended the seat. I just fit in," he said.

Olsen has trained for the mission on and off since spring 2004, mostly at Russia's cosmonaut training center in Star City, near Moscow.

Until recently, he trained mostly alone, focusing on physical conditioning, studying Russian, and learning how to work the communications system and other equipment on the spacecraft.

His flight was pushed back after doctors with the Russian space program found a medical ailment - never disclosed but since rectified. In May, he was cleared to fly.

Previously, Space Adventures sent American businessman Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth up for space station visits in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

"It's a way for the Russian space agency to bring in some well-needed money" and let civilians visit space, Olsen said.


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