Third Space Tourist Prepares for Blastoff

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U.S millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen (search), the world's third space tourist, bid farewell to his family Friday during final preparations for his flight to the international space station with a Russian-American crew.

The 60-year-old founder of an infrared-camera maker based in Princeton, N.J., reportedly paid $20 million for a seat on the Expedition 12 flight.

Olsen, who holds advanced degrees in physics and materials science, defended his presence in the capsule as a necessary step in the evolution of space travel.

"I would hope that my flight would help, if just to make space flight more routine," Olsen said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"One hundred years ago, airline flight was reserved for only a few brave souls. Everyone flies (on planes) nowadays. The same will be true of space flight."

With the Russian-built Soyuz (search) rocket being fueled on the launch pad Friday in Kazakhstan's barren steppes, Russian and American officials held tough talks on the future of joint space missions, with NASA's (search) chief warning that Moscow's demands for payment could end U.S participation.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (search) said a 2000 U.S. law banning space station-related payments to Russia because Moscow helped Iran build a nuclear plant "could end a continuous American presence" on the station.

The cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency (search) has turned to space tourism to generate money. Olsen is the third non-astronaut to visit the station: California businessman Dennis Tito (search) paid about $20 million for a weeklong trip to the space station in 2001, and South African Mark Shuttleworth (search) followed a year later.

Olsen made his fortune on optic inventions. He is the co-founder of Sensors Unlimited Inc. (search), a company that makes infrared imaging cameras and fiber-optic communications components.

At a preflight news conference with cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut William McArthur (search), Olsen said he preferred the term "space flight participant" to "space tourist."

"'Tourism' implies that anyone can just write a check and go up there. That's not what happened," he told the AP.

Olsen's flight was pushed back after Russian doctors found an unspecified medical ailment that since has been cleared up. He was cleared for flight in May.

Asked by a reporter how his health was, Olsen replied, "This has been two years of very hard work. In 20 hours, I will feel very, very good.

"All I have to do is to talk to my 4-year-old grandson, Justin," he said. "That's all the mental preparation I need."

McArthur, a retired Army colonel, has made three space shuttle flights, including one to the Russian space station Mir. He said he had no doubts about the safety of the Soyuz TMA-7 capsule.

"The record of the Soyuz indicates that it is a reliable vehicle. We have tremendous faith and confidence in the people who built and assembled our rocket," he said.

After blasting off Satuday morning from the Baikonur (search) cosmodrome, the space craft will rendezvous in two days with the station floating 250 miles above the Earth. Olsen, Tokarev and McArthur will bring cargo aboard and perform experiments.

The station's current inhabitants, Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips, arrived in April and are scheduled to return with Olsen on Oct. 11, touching down in Kazakhstan.

Against the backdrop of the latest Soyuz launch, NASA's Griffin met with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Perminov, for talks on the future of joint space missions.

Since the 2003 Columbia (search) disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have been the workhorses of the joint space projects, shuttling crews and cargo to the space station. Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank have cast doubt on when the shuttle will fly again.

Russia has made it clear that it expects the United States to make payment or some sort of capital investment in exchange for future U.S. participation on Russian flights.

However, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 penalizes countries that sell unconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran. Russia is building an $800 million nuclear power plant in Iran despite U.S objections that this could help Tehran build atomic bombs.

The U.S. Senate agreed unanimously last week to amend the law, lifting the ban on NASA purchases of Soyuz seats until 2012. The House has yet to act on the measure.

"We at NASA are seeking relief from the (law), which after April next year would preclude cooperation with Russia in relation to certain aspects" of the space station, Griffin said.

"At issue is whether there will be future U.S. crew members and future U.S. crew missions if the congressional provisions are not granted."

NASA officials said Thursday in Houston they expect McArthur to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz in the spring, one way or another. A space shuttle was supposed to bring him home, but NASA's fleet is grounded indefinitely.

Earlier, Anatoly Perminov (search), head of the Russian space agency, told reporters that if the U.S. shuttles are not flying by year's end, the Russian agency will begin charging NASA. He did not say how much Russia would charge.

The next Soyuz flight is scheduled for April.

NASA is uncertain when it will launch the next shuttle because of the foam problem. A March target is all but impossible and the space agency is looking for a mission no earlier than late spring.