Experiencing Space Tourism

Many of us dream of exploring space but few of us will ever have this opportunity. Space tourism however has opened the possibility for citizens to join astronauts at the International Space Station. Greg Olsen who celebrates the 13th anniversary of his almost 10 day space exploration joins Hari Sreenivasan now to discuss being the third space tourist to ever make the trip.

TRANSCRIPT

Many of us dream of exploring space, but few of us will ever have this opportunity.

Space tourism, however, has opened the possibility for citizens to join astronauts at the International Space Station, but what does it take to make the journey to the last frontier?

Joining us is the third space tourist to ever make the trip, Greg Olsen, who celebrates the 13th anniversary of his almost 10-day space exploration.

So, is it all it's cracked up to be?

Oh!

And even better.

It was like magic.

That's my best description of it.

To float weightless, you know, for 10 days -- unbelievable.

I mean, this cost you an enormous sum of money, 20 million bucks at the time, if I'm not mistaken.

Actually, turns out that was a bargain because numbers quoted now are upwards of $70 million or $80 million for the same trip.

[ Chuckles ]

And it's been, I don't know, five or six years since anyone has done it.

But it's still possible through Space Adventures.

You didn't just walk onboard.

There was a lot of training involved.

Tell me about that.

I had to train in Russia for six months.

NASA does not take private people into space, so the only way to do it is through the Russian Space Agency.

And what kind of training?

Well, it was primarily about the safety and emergency procedures.

You just can't walk on a rocket and go into space.

There's a lot of things you have to know.

How do you put the space suit on?

How do you take it off?

How do you make sure the air is flowing?

Millions of things.

Suppose a fire breaks out.

You're part of the crew.

You got to help.

100%, and the last thing I wanted to do is be a burden on the crew in case anything went wrong, so over and over again, we trained, so... And a good part of that is, you know, my crew, which was one cosmonaut -- a Russian cosmonaut -- and one NASA astronaut, trained together three or four hours for almost six months.

And we really got to know each other.

Still friends with them?

Oh, yeah.

I saw... Bill McArthur I see annually.

He stays in my place here in Manhattan.

And Valery Tokarev, the cosmonaut, was over here last week.

I took him to Fiorello's Café and to Princeton, New Jersey, where I stay.

Lovely.

So, is there a... a moment when it hits you?

Even with all the training, that helps some of the nerves.

Mm-hmm.

But where is it that you realize, 'Oh, man, this is happening'?

When you look out, and you see this big blue sphere just slowly receding.

It's like, 'Wow.' You know, in the rocket, which you can train for in a centrifuge, at least for the acceleration forces, the G-forces, so we had lots of practice for that.

But when we actually launched, you know, we have a shroud protecting us from the atmosphere, so we couldn't see anything.

And after about 50 miles, I heard this loud explosion.

The shroud went away, and there's the Earth, big blue sphere.

And it's like, 'Wow.' Unbelievable.

I mean, you can't train for that.

What does that...How does that shift your perspective on things?

[ Sighs ] You know, I'm not a terribly spiritual person, but I just felt like the luckiest person alive... and still do.

I mean, I was born here in Brooklyn.

My dad was an electrician.

My mom was a schoolteacher.

And to go from there to floating in space, it's like, 'Wow.'

How did you do it?

I mean, what kind of... What, did you start a business, what?

Yeah, real rags-to-riches story.

First of all, I was a real screw-up in high school.

I was suspended several times, did not get good grades.

I got suspended on the night of my prom.

[ Chuckles ] My girlfriend is yelling and screaming at me.

'I paid $30 for this dress!'

Got convicted of juvenile delinquency in Bergen County Court.

So at age 17, life wasn't looking very bright for me, but somehow, you know, I just kept going, and I got into Fairleigh Dickinson by the skin of my teeth, and that enabled me to kind of get my life together.

Wound up getting a PhD in material science from Virginia, became a research scientist, and I spun off, and I started and sold two high-tech companies, and that's really what enabled the money.

But what really enabled the whole thing was math and science.

Hmm.

And, you know, I've given over 500 talks to schoolkids, and I tell them, 'Don't give up.

Math and science, ' especially for women and minorities.

It's so easy to quit.

But what is it about learning math and science that you think changes you as a student?

I think it's mainly the discipline.

You know, we all remember in school there are always two or three kids in the class that just got everything, got straight 'A's.' They're the exception, and they don't always go on to be the biggest successes.

Most of the people were like me, struggling, 'Boy, I don't get this.' You know, having to work hard.

I mean, I was a 'B' student at my best, 'B,' 'B-plus.' Yeah, and I have no... I was very proud of that and still am.

You know, to get 'B's' in physics and quantum mechanics -- you know, that's okay.

But believe me.

I worked hard for that.

And that's really the secret.

My motto is 'Don't give up.' I tell that to kids.

I tell that to senior citizens.

You were the third.

Any idea how many space tourists there have been?

There have been seven.

One, Charles Simonyi, has done it twice.

That's a small group.

Yes, and we keep in contact.

Do you think that it is going to be more likely that space tourism catches on, is commercialized, and is accessible to people who don't have the means that you did when you had to do it?

I think the cost is going to come down.

But fundamentally, I mean, it costs about $10, 000 a pound...

A pound?

...to get something into orbit at, you know, 250 miles, which is low-Earth orbit.

That takes a lot of chemical energy, and, you know, can you get the price down from $50 million?

Sure.

But I don't see a $5, 000-per-person orbital ride.

Do you think your training in physics and science helped you to want to do this?

I'll tell you how I got the idea.

True story.

I was in Starbucks in Princeton, June of 2003, reading the paper, drinking coffee.

And I read a story about how civilians could go up into space, and it was just a 'Wow' moment to me, like, 'I gotta do this.' I had just sold my company, so I had the means.

You need three things to do a private space.

Obviously, you need the resources.

You need the desire, and I find about half the people I speak with say, 'Boy, I'd never do that.' And the third thing you need is time.

You need about two years of your life just to put yourself on hold.

It's not two years of training.

But between going back and forth to meetings and medical exams, it's the better part of two years.

And it's very distracting.

You know, you can't carry on a career and do this at the same time, so...

What did your family and friends think?

Well, I have two daughters and three sisters, and they all were supportive.

I don't know what they were saying in the background, but no one said anything negative to me.

Astronauts come back often with a greater respect for the environment...

Oh!

...when you realize that sort of blue-ball moment.

Mm-hmm.

Was there a moment that you came back realizing that this trip had affected you?

Oh, well, I was always conscious of the environment, but something that really struck me was the sunrise and sunset, which occurs eight times -- sorry, 16 times a day because we orbit the Earth 16 times.

And I have a great photo of just a thin blue band around the edge of the Earth, and when you look at it, you say, 'Man, that's all the air we have to breathe!'

And actually, most of that, what you see is not... You know, it's 20, 000 feet and higher, so, boy, it just struck me how little there is, and, you know, we'd better start taking care of it.

Gregory Olsen, thanks so much for joining us.

You bet.