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Vol. LXI, No. 49
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
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“Never Give Up on Your Dreams” Greg Olsen Tells Young Achievers

Linda Arntzenius

Princeton’s own astronaut Greg Olsen — the third private citizen to orbit the earth on the International Space Station (ISS) — visited the Henry Pannell Center last Thursday to talk about the experience with children in the Princeton Young Achievers program.

The third, fourth, and fifth graders listened as Mr. Olsen described his 10 days in space, more than 150 orbits of the earth, and almost four million miles of weightless travel.

In October, 2005, Mr. Olsen was launched in a Russian Soyuz rocket TMA-7 with cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev and astronaut Bill McArthur toward the ISS, 220 miles above the earth. Traveling at 17,000 miles an hour, faster than a bullet, it took less than 10 minutes to get into orbit and two days to reach the space station.

Before undertaking the journey, he trained for six months at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow. The most difficult task was learning Russian, he said.

Mr. Olsen told the young achievers that he’d dreamed of going into space ever since Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first man to do so. He saw his chance after reading about the company Space Adventures while enjoying his morning visit to Starbucks on Nassau Street.

He explained that although he had failed an important trigonometry exam in high school — and had been refused entry into college because of it — he never gave up on his dream. He worked hard over the summer to retake that exam and went on to a career as a research scientist and highly successful entrepreneur. While he didn’t rocket into weightlessness until the age of 60, his message was clear: The secret to success in life is never to give up on your dreams.

The children watched a video of Mr. Olsen’s trip, passed around his space glove, and had lots of questions to ask: How do you eat in space? How do you sleep? What keeps you from floating when you are sleeping? Were you scared? To this last question, Mr. Olsen replied: “Honestly, I wasn’t, because it was something I really wanted to do.” They laughed to see Mr. Olsen drinking water in a weightless environment — the liquid formed a ball when released from the water fountain and drifted towards his open mouth.

Viewing scenes of Mr. Olsen moving himself through the weightless environment of the space station, as if swimming through the air, one fourth grader responded: “That’s cool. I want to do that.”

“The hard thing is stopping,” said Mr. Olsen. One concept that seemed difficult to get across to the young students was the fact that in space there is no up and no down. Did you ever sleep upside down, asked one boy. Mr. Olsen explained that he had to be strapped down while sleeping. Foot straps enable cosmonauts to stay in place while working.

For his visit to the Pannell center, Mr. Olsen sported the jumpsuit he’d worn on board the space station. The suit pockets all had zippers. Once, he said, he put his small camera back into a pocket, which he forgot to zip closed. His camera floated off and he never saw it again.

He described the process of returning to earth. The descent module, which was protected by a heat shield, was the only thing that survived the high speed return; everything else burnt up. “That was the most exciting part,” he said.

He returned to earth with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and astronaut John Phillips. When he got back to earth he was dizzy and an inch taller, he said. The change in his height was a result of the lack of gravity. After a couple of days back on Earth, he lost the extra inch.

The presentation was just one of many that Mr. Olsen has given to encourage children, especially minorities and girls, to consider careers in science and engineering. He is active in the Trenton Big Brothers and Sisters program, the Trenton Boys and Girls Club, as well as the Trenton Soup Kitchen, the Princeton Historical Society, and other non-profit organizations. President of his own Princeton-based company, GHO Ventures, he once taught elementary physics classes and worked at RCA Labs (Sarnoff Center) from 1972 to 1983.

Princeton Young Achievers (PYA) is an after-school program that helps Princeton K-5th graders from low- and moderate-income neighborhoods improve their school performance and English language skills Monday through Friday, in three neighborhood centers: the Henry F. Pannell Learning Center on Clay and Witherspoon Streets, and Learning Centers at Princeton Community Village and Redding Circle. Children receive homework support, enrichment activities, and one-on-one tutoring.

For more information about Mr. Olsen’s journey to the International Space Station, visit: Anyone interested in becoming a PYA volunteer or making a donation, should contact Princeton Young Achievers, 25 Valley Road, Princeton, N.J. 08540. For more information, call (609) 806-4216, or visit:

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