Space Tourist Won't Take Back Seat

010320 international space station no vacancy
AP / CBS
The next civilian to be rocketed into orbit at his own expense won't just be enjoying the ride: Gregory Olsen, a scientist who made a fortune with optics inventions, plans to do some research during his $20 million trip to the International Space Station.

Olsen, the founder of Sensors Unlimited, Inc. in Princeton, N.J., has hired the company that brokered the first space tourist trip, millionaire Dennis Tito's flight aboard a Russian spacecraft in 2001.

The 58-year-old Olsen said he plans to bring along infrared sensors, which detect varying levels of heat, to analyze pollution in the Earth's atmosphere and the health of agricultural systems on the ground.

"We're going to use that to look at the earth, do things like water vapor content of crops," he said on CBS News' The Early Show. He also hopes to downlink video to earthbound schools to "motivate young people that science and engineering is a way up."

"I kind of feel this is a way of paying back," he said at a news conference Monday, although he admitted on The Early Show that "it's a thrilling experience to be up in space and be weightless."

Olsen also hopes the weightlessness of space will help him grow better versions of special crystals used in infrared sensors and other high-tech applications, though he hasn't finalized these plans.

He plans to publish his findings in scientific journals.

"Science and engineering — I mean, I love it and this is an opportunity to keep doing it," he said.

The entrepreneur said he has no worries for his safety, even with memories of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster fresh in his mind.

"It's risky crossing Fifth Avenue outside" the Early Show studios, he told co-anchor Harry Smith. "That doesn't concern me at all. This is something I really want to do."

He leaves for Star City, Russia, this week to begin six months of training for his flight aboard the Soyuz to the ISS. The eight-day voyage is scheduled for April 2005, but there's a chance he could go this October.

It may be getting a little crowded at Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center these days.

The three-man crew headed to the International Space Station next month passed a preflight exam Monday there, space officials said.

U.S. astronaut Mike Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka are in the final preparations for their six-month stay at the orbiting outpost.

The pair, who have been training together for years, will be launched aboard a Russian rocket in April. A Dutch astronaut, Andre Kuipers, will join them for a week and then return with the current two-member crew.

The Olsen trip's $20 million price is what Tito paid in 2001 and South African Mark Shuttleworth paid in 2002 for strictly tourist trips.

Eric Anderson, chief executive of Space Adventures, of Arlington, Va., would not elaborate on his company's financial arrangement with the Russian government.

He told CBS News' The Early Show Olsen isn't the only wealthy would-be astronaut.

"There are many people who see this as something of incredible value, as an investment in themselves and in the future," he said.

Space Adventures hopes to eventually send two tourists aboard a Soyuz flight flown by a Russian cosmonaut. That would mean there would be no room to bring a cosmonaut or astronaut home from the ISS on the return flight, so someone's ISS mission would be extended from six months to one year.

And civilian space travel may be coming down in price.

"We do actually have a plan over the next three or four years to fly people in suborbital space vehicle," he told Smith. "Instead of the eight-day 100-orbit journey that Greg is going to take, this would be a 20-minute flight up in space that would take you up over 100 kilometers, like Alan Shepherd or Gus Grissom."

The price? Merely $100,000. But right now, the price tag to go into space is $20 million.

Unlike Lance Bass, the pop singer who wanted to ride a Russian rocket to space but couldn't come up with the funds, Olsen says he has more than enough to cover the costs.

His research into crystals, part of which was funded by NASA, led to devices that help fiber-optic networks perform more efficiently. He sold his company, Sensors Unlimited, to optical-network parts-maker Finisar Corp. for $700 million in 2000.

In 2002, Olsen led a management buyback of the Sensors Unlimited name and licenses for some technologies from Finisar for $6.1 million.

Since then, with the help of small defense contracts, the company has focused on developing infrared, range-finding cameras for guided missiles and other military applications. The sensors have been used by NASA to detect ice on space vehicles.

NASA is not complaining about its ISS partner's latest plan to collect a fare from a private citizen in exchange for a ride.

"NASA has no problems with what the Russian space agency is doing because they're following procedures," spokesman Robert Jacobs said.

The United States slowly has been warming to the idea of space tourism.

The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would regulate commercial space flights, allow permits for experimental trips, and release the government of indemnity in case of a fatal disaster during an experimental flight.