Three Million Miles in Ten Days

Floating off to sleep, Earthgazing, making sure the capsule doesn’t depressurize: all standard on a space vacation.

Gregory Olsen was the third private citizen to visit the space station, after Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. (NASA / Courtesy Gregory Olsen)

Astronauts and cosmonauts belong to an exclusive profession, but space tourists who've bankrolled their own trip to orbit? Now that's an elite club. American entrepreneur and scientist Gregory Olsen is one of only seven "spaceflight participants" to have visited the International Space Station, having flown there on the Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft in 2005. In this condensed excerpt from his 2010 book By Any Means Necessary!: An Entrepreneur's Journey Into Space, Olsen describes his experiences in space.

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All told I spent 10 days in low earth orbit—eight of them on the International Space Station. You certainly can’t top the view, from the awe-inspiring globe of the Earth to the stars and planets visible against the black vacuum of space. But my most lasting impressions all revolve around the sensation of weightlessness.

When we first achieved orbit we didn’t have time to consider our new weightless freedom. I was holding various procedure manuals while Valeri [Tokarev] and Bill [McArthur] performed the numerous chores necessary to establish orbital flight, such as a detailed leak-check of the vehicle. Once everything was found to be “nominal” (normal), we could detach our oxygen lines, open our visors and gloves, detach our seatbelts and float! I knew right away I was going to like it. There had been a slight sense of flotation even while we were strapped in. Now we were simply drifting at will. Floating up into the Soyuz spherical habitat module, about seven feet in diameter, I felt free—truly free—WOW!

When we got to the ISS I was in an area about the size of four tractor-trailers, and I could float its entire length just by pushing gently off the back wall. In floating down the station I’d rotate 90°, transforming the ceiling into the right wall, the right wall into the floor, and so forth. Even while I was getting oriented, which took four or five days, the ability to move easily in every direction was truly liberating. I loved zooming up and down the station. A standard cosmonaut trick is to push off from one end of the vehicle and make it all the way to the other end without touching the sides. I never quite made it—it takes a real expert like Sergey Krikalev, our commander on the return flight, to pull that one off!

There are some downsides, of course. Eating or drinking can be a challenge, and personal hygiene (including going to the bathroom) take very different procedures from those you use on earth. Another of the side effects of weightlessness is that blood tends to accumulate in your head. As a result, your body decides there is too much blood in your system and shunts it to the kidneys for filtration and disposal as urine. When that begins to happen, you have to pee more often! At times we were lined up at the urinal hose (really, a vacuum cleaner hose where the suction pulls in the liquid).

Another striking feature of weightlessness is the way physical objects disappear, seemingly of their own accord. I must have taken a hundred or so pictures with my pocket-sized digital camera to capture and preserve my experiences. I kept the camera—where else?—in my shirt pocket. One day it wasn’t there. It had floated out of the pocket and drifted away.

I looked for it before I left the ISS, but with no success. When I got back to earth I sent a message to my crewmate Bill McArthur asking him to keep an eye out for it. Of course it really wasn’t the camera that I wanted, but the memories captured in all those pictures. When he found it, I asked him to download the photos, since he wouldn’t be back for a several months.

Having your pictures sent to you from an orbiting space station was a really cool idea, but while it was easy to do, bureaucracy found a way to complicate the process. Bill was working for NASA and I was a private citizen. The photos were private property, not NASA material. There were issues revolving around them having to bill me for providing the service.

So we compromised. I agreed to give NASA ownership of my photos. Since all NASA photos are in the public domain, freely available to anyone, they could send me the pictures I took without having to bill me for the privilege.

Yeah, that’s right … the only way to get my photos back was to agree they weren’t mine. Bureaucracy is wonderful that way. It’s nice, though, that those pictures are now available for everyone to see.

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