Greg Olsen was about three years old when he was first exposed to the magic of science. His father, an electrician, would allow Olsen to watch and even assist as he spliced wires and repaired appliances around the house.
His wonder and passion carried Olsen through college and a doctoral program in material science. After graduation it drove him to become a technological entrepreneur, a holder of 12 patents and the founder of two companies in the fiber optics and sensors industries that he later sold for more than $600 million.
Then, in 2005, Olsen’s love of science and exploration brought him further than he ever thought possible. With the aid of a private company and a team of Russian cosmonauts, he become only the third civilian in history to orbit the earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
For “only” $20 million, Olsen was able to train with astronauts in Russia for six months before rocketing up to the space station, where he spent ten days orbiting the earth at a speed of five miles per second.
After circling the planet more than 150 times, Olsen and his Russian crewmates returned to their Soyuz rocket and rocketed back down to earth, enduring the harrows of “reentry” at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. When the ship experienced a potentially dangerous air leak while reentering Earth’s atmosphere, it was the civilian astronaut who was tasked with holding open a critical valve.
“My arm almost fell off,” said Olsen, addressing a crowd of more than 100 community members gathered in the Brookdale Student Life Center on Dec. 3. “But we made it through.”
Today, Olsen uses his stories of personal and professional achievement to encourage students to pursue careers in science and engineering. Last week, Brookdale’s Physics and Astronomy Club joined with Red Bank-based STAR Astronomy to host the civilian astronaut on the Lincroft campus, where he gave a free presentation to local students and residents of all ages.
From his rigorous pre-flight training to his harrowing launch in the Soyuz rocket; from the challenges of sleeping in zero gravity to his air-leak-plagued trip back home, Olsen provided details and answered a wide range of questions on the life of an astronaut. What was the best part of the trip? Weightlessness, he said.
“Just imagine if you could float weightless in this room, just go back and forth. It’s like magic,” he told the audience. “I had work to do up there, some biological experiments and the like, but I spent a lot of time just going back and forth. Also just looking out the window and taking photos.”
Olsen also played some riveting videos from his time on the ISS, including his launch in the Soyuz, his attempts to drink zero-gravity water, and an absolutely breathtaking view of the earth from space.
“It’s overwhelming. I just felt like the luckiest person alive,” he said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. Ten days wasn’t enough. I think 30 days would be an optimum number.”
The talk left an impression on the more than 150 community members in attendance, many of whom stayed late into the evening to pick Olsen’s brain about his experiences and his current impressions of the U.S. space program. For science advocates like David Sita, the talk went a long way toward creating excitement and appreciation for STEM education and careers.
“Science, at its roots, has a lot of joy in it. But the joy comes after years of practice and abstraction. It’s not prone to instant gratification,” said Sita, a Brookdale mathematics tutor and former member of the Physics and Astronomy Club and STAR Astronomy.
“So seeing and hearing from someone like Greg Olsen, particularly at a young age, really plants a seed. Here’s this fantastic, awe-inspiring story, and it all comes back to that same education, that same seed. If his father wasn’t an electrician – if he didn’t have that experience at a young age – maybe he never goes to space at all.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the event’s cosponsors, including Brookdale Physics and Astronomy Club president Roland Riim and club advisor Michelle Paci. Riim, who is working with Brookdale’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society this year to promote STEM education, said America is in danger of falling behind other nations in the realms of science, engineering and innovation. It is more vital than ever, he said, to show young students the value and the power of STEM career.
“I think programs like the one this evening can help open a student’s mind to what scientists, engineers, and those kinds of professionals actually do, and what they can achieve,” Riim said. “I mean, look how far it took Greg Olsen.”
For Paci, it was encouraging to see a standing-room-only crowd of students and community members on hand for the event.
“The most touching aspect of this event for me was to see every generation – from infant to senior citizen – was represented in the crowd,” said Paci, who also serves as an executive board member with STAR Astronomy. “It was wonderful to see.”
For Olsen, the program served as an opportunity to share his own passion for science and explain some of the larger life lessons he has learned since first watching his father repair faulty wiring all those years ago. One such lesson, he said, was the art of endurance.
While training for his space flight back in 2004, Olsen said Russian medical staff found what looked like a spot on one of his lungs. Due to the extreme risks posed by space travel, the cosmonauts said he would be unable to embark on the mission and sent him home. His dream was over.
Olsen, however, refused to give up. He saw a doctor and underwent a series of tests which ultimately determined that the spot was benign. He returned to the Russian space team with a clean bill of health, but was told once again that the risks were too great. Again, he was sent home.
“But I couldn’t accept that. I wanted it too badly,” Olsen said. “So I went back, again, and again, and again. Nine times I went back to them, asking them to let me make the journey. And, finally, they agreed.
“The lesson I learned when I was 60 years old was the same one I learned when I was 16,” he said. “If you really want to do something, don’t give up.”
Check out more photos from Greg Olsen’s presentation here.