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SPIE Professional April 2006

Man on a Mission

Gregory Olsen, entrepreneur and space traveler, shares his thoughts on encouraging the next generation of scientists.

By Rich Donnelly

SPIE member Gregory Olsen has been to one considerably more exotic destination than almost any other casual traveler: the International Space Station. Last September, he blasted off aboard a Soyuz rocket for a week in space, only the third paying passenger to do so.
He sees his experience as a way to inspire young people to pursue science, and he's planning to share it as much as he can.

Fig. 1 Gregory Olsen on his mission into space.
"First of all, we've got to make kids more aware of how much fun science is," he says. "And listen, going up in space is really fun -- that's the kind of things kids get excited about."
Olsen considers himself lucky to have grown up in the early days of space flight. "We had Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, and John Glenn -- all that happened when I was a boy. When we got off the earth, it was a wonderful thing. It's hard to get that kind of spectacular achievement now."
He hopes that hearing his talk will make students think about their educational path. "How did I get into space? I studied math and science," he says. He points out that persistence was important. "I failed trigonometry, yet I hung in there and got to where I am by science and engineering, so if I can do it, you guys can do it too."
Olsen is also an extremely successful entrepreneur, having started and sold two companies, Epitaxx and Sensors Unlimited. If he manages to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, he will have some simple concepts, derived from his own success, to pass on to them.
Olsen feels that a key element of his success has been his involvement with SPIE. Why does he think it's so important?
"I'll give you one word: networking. SPIE is a great, great organization for networking," he says. "We've gotten a number of research contracts from the government because we presented papers at SPIE (conferences)."
Asked for words of wisdom for a young entrepreneur, Olsen is equally succinct:
"Don't give up!" he says. "In the year 2000 everybody thought it was easy: you go out and you raise 5 or 10 million dollars, you hire some lawyers and accountants. They found out it wasn't easy. Well, it's never easy, and what really separates the winners from the losers is not who's the slickest or who's the smartest. It's who hangs in there and doesn't give up. And people that start small businesses, really work hard, and when the tough times come just survive and get through it, almost always wind up winners."
Read more about Olsen and his trip into space on the Newsroom.

Rich Donnelly, SPIE Newsroom Managing Editor

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200604.13