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The Space Tourist
By Ezra Billinkoff

The <i>Soyuz</i> spacecraft carrying the Expedition 12 crew and Gregory Olsen on October 3, 2005.
The Soyuz spacecraft carrying the Expedition 12 crew and Gregory Olsen on October 3, 2005.
(Photo: NASA TV/AP Wide World)
October 4—Gregory Olsen is not an astronaut. He is a 60-year-old businessman from New Jersey where he founded his successful technology company. This week, however, Olsen became the world's third non-astronaut to pay for a trip into space.

On Monday, the Russian-built Soyuz rocket carrying Olsen, American astronaut William McArthur, and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, docked at the International Space Station (ISS).

McArthur and Tokarev will replace the current space station residents, who have been there for six months. Olsen will spend a week in orbit before traveling back to Earth with the old crew.

Before take-off, Olsen explained his reasons for going. "I would hope that my flight would help to make space flight more routine," he said.

Olsen's wish could come true. He is the third "space tourist" in four years to travel on a Russian craft to the space station. American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth have both made round trip visits to the ISS. Going into space is not easy, however. Olsen has worked hard for two years to prepare.

The Russian Federal Space Agency offers an ISS trip to anyone who can afford it and pass the necessary training. Olsen reportedly paid $20 million for his trip. The Russian space program has been short on money in recent years and is looking to individuals interested in space travel to bring in some badly needed cash.

Counting on Russia

NASA has relied on the Russian space program and its Soyuz capsule to transport American astronauts to the ISS since the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. The space shuttle Discovery made a flight earlier this year, but the program was grounded again because of safety concerns. So far, the Russians are not charging the U.S. for trips to the ISS. That may change by the end of the year.

As one of the few space tourists, Olsen focuses his attention on the glory of traveling in space. "One hundred years ago, airline flight was reserved for only a few brave souls," he said. "Everyone flies [on planes] nowadays. The same will be true of space flight."