Greg Olsen never trained as an astronaut, but that didn't stop him from launching into orbit. In October of 2005, Olsen, an entrepreneur, engineer, and scientist, became the third private citizen to pay his way into space, tagging along with Russian cosmonauts as they circled the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. He shelled out a cool $20 million for the trip, which almost seems reasonable next to the $52 million opera star Sarah Brightman just paid for the same privilege.
These days space tourism is reserved for people with serious disposable income. But with the combined power of private space-flight companies such as Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures Ltd, it can’t be too many decades before middle-classers are shelling out a few thousand for a chance to spend a few days in orbit (and repeat space travelers are rocketing up for regular weekends at a luxury space hotel). And it’s never too early to start thinking about how you'll pack. So we asked Olsen to lay down a few ground rules when it comes to practicalities, like host-hostess gifts, internet access, and getting two feet back on Earth.
When you stay at someone’s home as a guest, it’s polite to bring a host gift. Is it the same with astronauts?
Actually, yes, but it’s less a personal thing and more like fresh vegetables, because they’re up there for six months with only freeze-dried food. The Russians love onions. I’m not that keen on biting into a fresh onion, but they are.
Like an apple?
Yeah, at least the group I was with.
What’s the best piece of practical advice you’d give to future space tourists?
When I first went into training there was an astronaut, Norm Thagard, with whom I was consulting. I said, "Norm, what’s the best thing I could do here?" And he said, "Just keep your mouth shut and do what they tell you," and I did, and it worked for me.
Did you get advice from any other space tourists?
Dennis Tito was the first, and I spoke with him a lot. I had a medical rejection my first time, and he said, "Listen Greg, just go back and keep fighting and don’t give up," and it turned out to be the right advice. Mark Shuttleworth was the second. He’s from South Africa, and I lived there for a while so we had that in common. We all chat with each other. It’s like a fraternity.
Is there a secret handshake?
No, nothing like that. We’re just very open with each other.
What did you pack?
There are a lot of limitations on what you can and cannot take. Things like your space suit, your clothing, and your food are taken care of, but I could take 10 kilograms of luggage. I took pictures of all my daughters and grandkids, and I took dog tags for my grandkids saying "Flown in space by grandpa." I wished I’d taken more personal things like that up so I could say, “Yeah, it’s been flown in space.”
Could you communicate with Earth?
We had Internet access about 5 minutes out of every hour, depending on where we were on Earth. We even had an Internet protocol phone, so a couple of times a day we could speak with the ground.
What did you do to pass the time in orbit?
I had a lot of free time, so I took a lot of photographs, and I did a lot of looking out the window. I brought a book, but I can’t even remember what it was because I found there was quite enough to do up there.
Where did you land?
We both launched and landed in Kazakhstan — it was chosen because it’s a big, long, flat country with a lot of unoccupied semidesert. You land by parachute, and you just bump into the ground.
Were you frightened at any point?
When we came down we had an air leak, and we lost a good deal of our cabin air. One of my responsibilities was to open the emergency oxygen valve. I had to hold it open until the cabin recharged with oxygen, and I felt like my arm was going to fall off, but I knew there was no way I could let go.
Would you ever go back?
I would go right now if I had the chance. But I’d have to sell another company first.