The next paying customer bound for the International Space Station (ISS) is in the final weeks of training for the orbital trip, which is set to launch in just over one month's time.
Technology entrepreneur and scientist Greg Olsen is counting down the days until he steps inside a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft and launches toward the ISS with Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev.
"Things are going great," Olsen said Wednesday during a telephone interview. "So, fingers crossed we'll launch on time."
Olsen and the Expedition 12 crew are slated to ride their Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft into orbit on Sept. 30 at 11:54 p.m. EDT (0354 Oct. 1 GMT).
The head of the Princeton, New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited, Inc., Olsen will be the third paying spaceflight participant to fly aboard the ISS. The $20-million spaceflight follows successful station visits by space tourists Dennis Tito in 2001 and Mark Shuttleworth in 2002, all of which were brokered by the Arlington, Virginia space tourism firm Space Adventures.
"It's more training as a crew right now," Olsen said Wednesday of his work in Star City, Russia, where cosmonauts train for their spaceflights. "I'm honored just to be around these guys ... they recognize I'm coming in green."
McArthur and Tokarev will relieve the station's current crew, Expedition 11's Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips, who will return to Earth with Olsen aboard their Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft on Oct. 10.
Despite rigorous simulations and multiple hyperbolic aircraft flights to simulate weightlessness, Olsen said the most challenging aspect of his mission preparations is not space-related.
"Probably, it's the Russian language for me, frankly," he said, adding that he is looking forward to the feeling of weightlessness in orbit. "All of the astronauts and cosmonauts tell me that it's better up there."
Olsen's road to space has not always been smooth. The entrepreneur first announced plans to ride a Soyuz to the ISS in 2004, though an undisclosed medical condition prevented him from completing cosmonaut training at Star City.
In May 2005, that condition was apparently resolved and he was again cleared for training and resumed flight preparations in Russia. By late July, a Russian Sokol spacesuit - for the Soyuz flight - and custom-made seat were in the works for the U.S. scientist.
Olsen told SPACE.com that, currently, his days are spent learning to perform as a team with the Expedition 12 crew, unlike the first three months of training during which he trained alone.
McArthur and Tokarev, both veteran space flyers, and Olsen have been performing a series of simulations to prepare for their two-day Soyuz flight to the ISS. They are expected to leave Star City for Russia's spaceport, Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on Sept. 18.
"I have sort of a helper role on the Soyuz," Olsen said, adding that he has trained to operate some oxygen systems. "I don't have a lot of responsibility."
But Olsen is still hoping to perform infrared imaging experiments during his time onboard the ISS, as well as hold radio sessions with schoolchildren in the Princeton area and wherever else possible. His final science program has not yet been finalized, he said.
"I do have a ham radio exam tomorrow and a [Soyuz] simulation," Olsen said.
Despite the hefty price tag of his flight, Olsen said he hopes it will reinforce the view that space belongs to everyone, and not just large government agencies.
"This is our future," Olsen said of human spaceflight. "It's not a narrow government thing."
The space tourist-to-be said that while spaceflight is a risky endeavor, he is not feeling any apprehensions about his upcoming launch, largely due to the proven reliability of the Russian Federal Space Agency's successful Soyuz track record.
"I'm really impressed," Olsen said. "They don't have all the resources they need, but I think they do a fabulous job with the Soyuz vehicle."
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 12