June 7, 2006 6:05 PM PDT

Space tourist tells tales of rockets, diapers

SAN FRANCISCO--Knowing the feeling of weightlessness...enjoying NASA-issued shrimp cocktail...being called "space cowboy" by Russian cosmonauts. Cost: $20 million.

The experience of flying to the International Space Station: Priceless.

That may be the easiest way to sum up Greg Olsen's 10-day tour into orbit with the Russian Space Agency, as the third private citizen ever to make the trip. Olsen spoke about his October 2005 travels at the annual Society of Information Design luncheon, held here Wednesday.

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"It was absolutely worth it," Olsen said to a roomful of scientists, after describing some of the sillier highlights, like flying through the shuttle or snacking on a floating Slim Jim.

On a more technical note, Olsen trained for five months, or 900 hours, in Moscow before rocketing roughly 200 miles into outer space, orbiting the Earth for two days, and then finally docking at the ISS for eight more days. In all, Olsen, who was 60 when the voyage launched, orbited the Earth 150 times before heading back to Russia. That's possible because the ISS travels at about 17,000 miles per hour, completing an orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes.

"The only way for someone like me to go up there is through the Russian Soyuz rocket," he said, adding: "It's quite an experience."

If private industry has its way, Olsen will soon be joined by many other people out to expand the idea of what it means to travel abroad. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are building businesses around private space travel, and NASA itself is hosting contests to encourage companies and academics to build next-generation technology for commercial space flight.

A New Jersey resident, Olsen got the idea for his trip one morning in 2003 while reading the paper at a local Starbucks. Space Adventures--a U.S.-based space-travel agency contracted with Russia--had sent the first two private citizens to ISS, according to a news article that day. Olsen, who was recently flush with cash from the sale of his optical technology company Epitaxx to a telecom operator, decided it was a good time to pursue a long-held dream.

But his plans were temporarily thwarted in 2004, when Russian doctors found a black spot on his lung during routine X-rays before training was to start. After working with doctors for nine months, he was re-admitted to the program.

"People often ask me what I learned and I tell them, 'Don't give up,'" said Olsen, who now lectures at schools around the country, encouraging kids to study math and science. "I failed trigonometry in high school and eventually went on to get my Ph.D."

Olsen described his five-month training in Moscow as a cross between college and military boot camp, but for Russian cosmonauts. Training included a two-mile run every morning, Russian language classes and exams, fire-fighting drills and zero-gravity training, in which he practiced free-falling for 30 seconds at a time.

Olsen traveled with two astronauts, a Russian and an American, but he still had to speak the language, which was the hardest part of the training, he said. At liftoff the three men had waited two and half hours in cramped conditions, and then flew another four-and-a-half hours before having the ability to move around. "We all wore Huggies diapers, and we all had to use them, too."

In the Soyuz, the crew made 34 orbits before docking at the ISS, where there were two other astronauts manning the station. The ISS is fairly close to Earth at 226 miles in outer space, and it measures about 200 feet long. Olsen likened his experience in the station to a long and weightless camping trip. No showers, no sinks, no running water. The crew uses wet wipes to clean up and an onboard vacuum to urinate. The crew straps into sleeping bags to sleep upright.

When Olsen landed, he needed help to stand and walk because of effects to the vestibular system in zero gravity and the shaky re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. It took him three or four days to regain normalcy.

It also took him some time to regain his normal height. He was 1 inch taller for a day, thanks to weightless effects that cause the vertebrae to relax and stretch.

"The most fun was floating," he said.

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