A Scientist, Tycoon and the Third Private Citizen in Space
In a recent telephone interview with maverick scientist and business millionaire Greg Olsen, I asked him whether he had experienced an “aha” moment on his journey into outer space in 2005 — only the third “international” civilian ever to do so at the time.
“All ten days were an aha moment but I didn’t have any individual spiritual experience or anything like that, I was just like ‘Wow, I’m the luckiest guy alive to be able to do this,’” said Olsen.
“I mean, every day when I woke up I felt that way, I just felt so fortunate and lucky. To be an average guy from America and now I’m flying into space at the age of 60 years old… I felt very privileged and fortunate.”
Having just finished reading his book By Any Means Necessary I knew the research scientist and business entrepreneur lived by the mantra “Never Give Up” which drove him to overcome a number of earthly obstacles to reach Space including a collapsed lung which had initially alarmed the brilliant, albeit conservative Russian doctors based at Star City, Kazakhstan.
The never-say-die scientist flew back to America and underwent surgery to put himself back in contention.
“It took me eight months of pounding on the door until they finally let me back into training with the condition that if the black spot shows up again, I’m immediately out. Fortunately that didn’t happen and I got to fly.”
Even once he was finally locked into the capsule with fellow cosmonauts Valei Tokarev and American Bill McArthur he had nagging doubts the Russians would allow him to fly.
“Call me overcautious, but I had instructed Jim McLaughlin [financial advisor] not to authorize the final payment for my trip into space until the rocket had cleared the launch pad.”
Interestingly, unlike their American counterparts the Russians do not have a 10-second countdown made famous by Houston mission control. Instead, once every circuit has been checked and re-checked they simply hit the launch button.
His capsule reached space within several minutes and began orbiting the Earth at speeds reaching 17,500 miles per hour. The 10-day journey would categorize him more a space scientist than ‘space tourist’ – a term he dislikes.
During this period he performed a number of medical and scientific experiments for the European Space Agency, which kept him busy but not to the point he could not enjoy the experience of seeing the Earth from above.
“I vividly recall looking out the window and suddenly seeing this massive cloud formation, with an unmistakable funnel inside: a hurricane.”
Awed by the image, he completely forgot to immortalize the moment with the digital camera he had brought onboard.
Olsen’s whole life has been dedicated to science both in terms of research (as a scientist) and application (as a businessman). Intriguingly, many of his interests and ventures have connections back to South Africa including his wine farm in Paarl, Cape Town– his next stop after the interview.
Olsen completed his post-doctoral studies in Materials Science at the University of Port Elizabeth in 1971.
During his 18-months on the tip of Africa he fell in love with the land, which eventually sparked the purchase of a vineyard near Cape Town in 2000. This is one of a multitude of personal and technology investments he has completed under the banner of his new company called GHO Ventures.
Olsen spends one month of each year with his family in South Africa, usually in February, attending to the summer harvest at Olsen Wineries.
“It’s either very relaxing or very hectic, depending on when the harvest takes place. You can’t plan it. It’s kind of a gamble. Once harvesting begins your up at 4.30 a.m. each day. It’s fun, I love it.”
During his 9-month training program at Star City, which included daily 2-mile runs, he used his connections with the South African embassy in Kazakhstan to personally deliver some of his Paarl wines to the evening meals attended by American astronauts based at the facility.
“I became very popular. It gave me a way to meet a lot of astronauts — many of whom remain friends of mine to this day.”
Oslen was inspired to pay $20 million to go into orbit after reading the exploits of the South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who became the second private citizen to hitch a ride on a Russian Rocket.
Shuttleworth made his millions by selling his Internet-security company Thawte to Verisign for over $500-million, which would later allow him to launch the famous open-source project, Ubuntu.
Both men have strikingly similar profiles and reflect a new breed of entrepreneurs who pursue lofty goals in Space and on Earth. Nothing seems taboo for them.
Olsen is also a big fan of Elon Musk, another famous South African who reached great heights as the co-founder of Paypal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors.
Under his present company, GHO Ventures, Olsen has also invested in number of start-ups including a South African company called MLT Drives, which make inverters for solar energy.
According to their website:
“What all MLT products have in common is that they are particularly useful for African markets with large numbers of off-grid facilities, an unstable grid network and dramatically increasing energy prices instigating a trend towards independent green energy systems such as solar panels and inverters.”
Many of Olsen’s projects have a renewal energy theme; something he is passionate about. Two of his favorites are United Silicon Carbide and Princeton Power Systems, which reflect solar power inverter and silicon-transistor replacement technologies respectively.
The latter in particular has powerful miniaturization features, which may allow the electronics modules in electric cars to be reduced by up to 80% in size.
Some of his other “babies” housed under the GHO banner includes an Internet startup Achieve 3000, which focuses on improving the reading skills of children.
“It’s been extremely successful in the inner city schools in the U.S. and I would like to see it eventually being brought over to South Africa. Kids in fourth and fifth grades are falling further and further behind their classmates in reading. This enables them to catch up more quickly.”
Although he is agnostic politically he yearns for more political leadership from Washington to help bring America back to the glory days of the 1960s when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
“I wish we just had a political leader, I don’t care who he is or what party he is from who would just step up to the plate and say: listen, a lot of our problems, political and economic are related to energy. We could use energy independence to solve a lot of our political and economical problems.”
“If we became leaders in energy in general and specifically in clean energy we’d be world leaders. We could become a net exporter again. My concern is we’ll wind up importing more and more from China instead of developing our own technologies.”
I asked him if a possible solution may be to lock up the 100 best U.S. scientists in a room for the next five years until they came up with a viable commercial technology.
“[Laughs] I’m not sure if that would work. Back in 1960 when Kennedy made his famous speech with the goal ‘we are going to put a man on the moon before 1970’, it was something people could relate to and grab onto.”
“I went back and I re-read that speech, and it’s mostly a downer; he was talking about how we were slipping behind, how we were behind in education, how the Russians were ahead and this is gonna cost three hundred million and that’s going to cost five hundred million.”
“That’s when one hundred million meant something economically — it wasn’t a hundred billion, it was a hundred million! The first 90% of it was a downer but in the end he said: ‘we have no choice, we must do it, we will do it’ and it was those last few lines that were really were motivating.’”
Many readers may be surprised why a guy like Olsen has not committed himself to building a interstellar initiative similar to Space Adventures (which helped him get into space) or something like Virgin Galactic started by Sir Richard Branson.
“Sure, I just don’t have enough money to do it,” he laughed. That’s quite a statement from a guy who sold one of his earlier companies for a whopping $600 million!
Instead, since he landed back on Earth in 2005, he has devoted himself to getting more kids in America interested in science and engineering. To this end, he has given more than 400 talks to kids in the 8-12 year age group across America.
“I think they are the most impressionable. I use the space thing to get them excited about technology.”
In his book, Olsen describes a brief moment on the day prior to launch when his family arrived on a bus at Star City to visit him. He was under strict orders not to have any human contact during the week leading up to blast-off, which meant he had to remain at a safe distance.
His youngest grandson, Justin, then four years old, ignored the order and attempted to rush out and give Olsen a hug.
“I had no choice but to run away, with Justin in hot pursuit,” remembers Olsen.
His daughter who calmed him down and explained the situation consoled a shocked Justin.
“He has a goal now and wants to be an astronaut, which is great. For me, its less about being an astronaut and more about being a scientist or an engineer,” said Olsen.
It’s always difficult finding that one last question to ask a person like Olsen who has done so much with his life and will probably do a whole lot more.
In these situations I like find out what they are currently reading as it gives me some insight into how they relax and what they find interesting.
“I am reading the Keith Richards memoir, called Life. What I find interesting about it is it’s more about life in the 50s in England, than about Rock and Roll. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of that, but you know, it’s not just, Oh, we used drugs here, we got smashed there, it talks a lot about growing up and what life was like in England. I think anyone my age would probably enjoy reading about it, especially people from England.”
When his capsule landed back on Earth in 2005, Olsen had been focused on Space for nearly two and half years.
“When I came down in that Kazakhstan desert and they pulled us out of the capsule, it was over it felt real good. People are cheering you and asking for autographs and that’s all nice.
“But then you go home and say ‘All right, so what’s the rest of my life going to be like?’”
Judging from what he told me in that interview on February 1st, 2010 I would have to say “Pretty Good.”
You can find his book By Any Means Necessary on Amazon.