Friday, September 23, 2005

Countdown to Saturday Launch

Inside UVA by Charlotte Crystal

Two professors plan to watch their former student rocket into space

On Oct. 1, barring bad weather, Greg Olsen, a U.Va. alumnus, businessman, scientist and inventor will rocket into space in a Russian spacecraft, just the third private citizen ever to fly as a space tourist.Watching him from front-row seats near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, along with family and friends, will be two of his former U.Va. professors, Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and William Jesser, as well as Jesser’s wife, Barbara.

Three astronauts, including U.Va. alumnus 
Greg Olsen (left) prepare for a space journey.

Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, a materials scientist and retired University Professor of Applied Science, and Jesser, past chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, taught Olsen when he was a graduate student at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in the 1960s and 1970s.

Olsen was Jesser’s first doctoral student and the professor-student pair published several papers together. He also studied both with Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and her late husband, Heinz Wilsdorf, a metallurgist and the first chairman of materials science, who died in 2000.

“This may be one of my most important trips ever,” said Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, who can recall seeing horse-drawn carts on the streets when she was a child in Germany.

“It should certainly bevery a  memorable trip,” Jesser added. “It will be a little surreal, imagining Greg up in the space station, doing experiments.”
Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and William Jesser look
over plans for a new engineering school building
being built thanks to a $15 million gift from Olsen
Since completing his studies, Olsen has enjoyed a successful career in business and in 2000 made the largest gift ever to the engineering school. That year, Olsen pledged $15 million to the school, with $14 million going toward a new building and $1 million to cover related expenses. The building, which will connect the materials science and chemical engineering buildings and house a Center for Nanoscopic Design of Materials, will be named Wilsdorf Hall, in honor of Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and her husband.

Also contributing to the building was the family of rock star Dave Matthews, whose father, the late John W. Matthews, also studied with Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf in South Africa and did ground-breaking research with Jesser at U.Va.

Born in 1945, the son of an electrician, Olsen earned dual bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He completed a master’s degree in physics there before enrolling at U.Va., where he received a doctorate in materials science in 1971. His dissertation topic was “The FCC-BCC Transformation in Thin Iron Films,” which built on research into crystal growth, which he had studied with Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and Jesser.

After an 18-month post-doc in South Africa, Olsen took a job with RCA Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., as a research scientist. There he studied crystal growth, lasers and photo-detectors. In 1984, he started his own company, Epitaxx, which made photodiodes for the fiber optics industry. He sold the company in 1990 for $12 million and the next year started Sensors Unlimited, a fiber optics manufacturing and research company, also based in Princeton. In 2000, that company was sold for $700 million.

Epitaxy, the science of how crystals grow on each other, has developed over the past half century. It began with theoretical work done by Jan van der Merwe, a South African doctoral student working in England after World War II in the same group of students as German-born Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, who was also studying in England after the war. She and her husband later taught in South Africa and in Pennsylvania before coming to U.Va. in 1963.

As a professor here, Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf introduced the study of epitaxy, one of the theories that undergirds the field of nanotechnology, pairing Jesser with John Matthews to conduct joint research, then pairing Olsen with Jesser. “I knew the founder of this field, and now it has grown into a very important field,” she said.

In the final weeks before takeoff, Olsen has been in quarantine in Russia to protect his health. Since October 2004, he has completed more than 500 hours of training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City near Moscow. The training center is named for the Russian cosmonaut who was the first man to orbit Earth.

Olsen will travel with two colleagues, NASA astronaut William McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev. They will fly on a Russian Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft aboard a Soyuz rocket. Together, the three men will make up the 12th expedition crew to reach the International Space Station, which orbits at 240 miles above the Earth. They will spend about a week in the space station where Olsen will run experiments on remote sensing, infrared astronomy and crystals. During the trip, the trio will travel more than 3 million miles in space and orbit the Earth more than 100 times.

The company that arranged for Olsen to boldly go where only two space tourists have gone before, Space Adventures Ltd., was founded in 1998 by Eric Anderson, also a U.Va. alumnus. Anderson, who is the president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, holds a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from U.Va. (SEAS, 1997). His space tourism company, which is headquartered in Arlington, Va., works in partnership with the Russian Federal Space Agency and a Russian rocket manufacturer.