Greg Olsen, scientist, businessman and astronaut, came to the College on March 26 to tell his story in the New Library Auditorium.
Olsen nearly flunked out of high school, failing trigonometry and graduating with an overall average of 70. Coaxed into college, Olsen received his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in physics from Fairleigh Dickinson University. A doctorate in materials science from the University of Virginia followed afterwards.
From 1972-1983, Olsen worked as a research scientist for RCA labs. It was here where he got the idea to start his first company, Epitaxx.
“I had no background in business . until 1983 when I got the idea to start this tech company,” Olsen said.
With $1.5 million in startup funds, the company focused on making fiber-optic detectors and soon employed up to 55 people and made $5 million a year. The company was bought out by Japanese company Nippon Sheet Glass for $12 million in 1990.
“In 1990 everybody thought Japan was going to rule the world economically,” Olsen said. “We all hear about India and China now . Anybody who thinks the U.S. is gonna get left in the dust, just remember what happened in 1990.”
Olsen started his second company, called Sensors Unlimited, in 1992. Sensors Unlimited was sold for $600 million in 2000 but Olsen bought the company back a year later for $6 million and later re-sold it for $60 million in 2003.
It was in June of that year that Olsen got the idea to travel into space.
“The inspiration to go to the International Space Station (ISS) came from this,” Olsen said, holding up his coffee cup. “Every morning you can find me at the Starbucks on Nassau Street (in Princeton) reading the paper.”
It was a chance reading during one particular Starbucks trip that introduced Olsen to Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, the first two private citizens to board the ISS.
“Have you ever had that feeling where you’ve seen something and you said to yourself, ‘I have to do this?'” Olsen asked.
By April of 2004 Olsen was in Russia training for his spaceflight. In June of that year he was disqualified for having a black spot on his lung.
“That was a devastating experience for me,” Olsen said.
He got clearance from American doctors, and pressed the issue with the Russian doctors until he was allowed back into the program in May 2005.
“By February I didn’t think that I would get to fly into space, but I just kept at it,” Olsen said.
In October of that year, he and two other astronauts launched from Russia.
Olsen showed videos of his trip on the ISS with instructions on how to drink water and eat food. He also demonstrated basic properties of physics using a floating notebook.
Of his experience, Olsen said he was happy with how everything turned out.
“I don’t consider myself an astronaut, but I feel like I was properly trained,” he said.
Currently, Olsen is the chief executive officer of GHO Ventures and, in addition to managing a winery in South Africa and a ranch in Montana, he funds “Angel Projects,” which are startup companies that he believes show promise.
“I love startups,” Olsen said. “I thought, why don’t I try investing in others?”