Rogers is a frail-looking 78-year-old man whose unruly wisps
of white hair and oversize black-framed glasses make him seem like
central casting's idea of a scientist. This day, Rogers, who is in
fact a scientist, is a mad scientist. You can see it in his body
language -- lips pursed, elbows tight against his body as if he can't
chance letting his arms fly. He might hit something. His words come
out with bite. "Why not space tourism? It should be and I thought
would be characteristically American. But now," and here he
pauses as if in pain, "but now we're behind the Russians again.
is furious that a 60-year-old American financier, Dennis Tito, became
the first space tourist last spring -- paying a reported $20 million
to ride a Russian rocket to the international space station, and returning
to Earth eight days later in a Russian space capsule to, of all places,
Russia. The roomful of people to whom Rogers is speaking nod and murmur
in agreement. He is preaching to the converted. They all believe space
should be opened to you and me, that our government or private enterprise
or some combination of the two should spend billions of dollars to
develop the technology that would let us take weekend jaunts in space
that could, they argue, end up costing as little as $10,000 a ride.
That's about what it used to cost to take the Concorde to Paris and
In the not-too-distant future they see regularly scheduled "spaceliners"
heading for orbiting hotels, the moon and beyond. In their vision, a
chain will have to be put around the footprints left on the moon by Neil
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin so the tourist hordes won't wipe them out.
It would be easy to dismiss Rogers and his listeners as a bunch of
loony cranks. Space hotels? Spaceliners? And yet -- Rogers is the real
deal, a well-regarded physicist who got his start as a government scientist
right out of Providence College at the end of World War II working on
radar (actually, radar countermeasures, which, considering how cutting
edge radar was, made his work even more cutting edge). Except for a brief
stint on Wall Street, where he made enough money "to do whatever
I want," he has worked for the federal government all of his life.
Among other things, he chaired the Office of Technology Assessment's
space station study back in 1984.
70 people in the audience have traveled from Japan, Germany, France,
Italy and Australia to hear Rogers and others at a daylong conference.
And while the get-together doesn't have government support, it is being
held one bright summer day in the grand and imposing caucus room of
the Cannon House Office Building. Among the co-hosts are the never-frivolous
U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as Georgetown University and the University
of Houston. There is no one wearing a beanie with a propeller on top.
(But there are a fair number of people who have the aura of real estate
speculators, opening the possibility that at dinner you're going to
start getting phone calls that begin, "Hi, I'd like to talk to
you about an out of this world vacation.")
Rogers gave his talk, the conference heard from a Japanese academic
who said Japanese airlines have commissioned preliminary plans for
a spaceliner to be called the Kankoh-maru, or sightseeing ship. (Rogers
looked as if he'd had an attack of heartburn when he heard that. First
the Russians, now the Japanese . . .) There was an Italian architect
with renderings of an orbiting hotel (her design was very Italian,
very stylish). And there was an Australian marketing man who predicted
there would be one taker a year at $20 million a trip, 1,000 takers
at $1 million a trip, and a million folks lined up each year when the
price drops to $10,000. All of these people agree: There is big money
to be made in outer space.
the heart of the space tourism movement is Rogers. He is an unlikely
maverick. In the 1950s and '60s, he worked on making sure U.S. nuclear
missiles could hit the Soviet Union. In particular, he worked on the
problem of communicating with American planes and submarines. The 1957
Russian launch of Sputnik changed that whole world. Satellites provided
a way to reliably and efficiently communicate with far-flung strategic
forces. He's been interested in space ever since. He became one of
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's whiz kids (his title was deputy
director of defense research and engineering). In addition to working
on command and control of nuclear strike forces, he was present at
the birth of satellite navigation.
One other thing you should know about this man who would have us
travel in the most complicated machines ever conceived: He has never
had a driver's license. "I am not competent to drive," he
says with no further explanation.
Rogers still retains a Cold Warrior attitude toward the Russians, which
is why Dennis Tito's trip galled him.
One on one, Rogers is far less angry-sounding than in public. In a
brown-striped seersucker suit and colorful tie, he speaks thoughtfully
and with care. Instead of the biting rhetoric about the Russians of
his speech, here he says, "I have really mixed emotions about
this stuff. If we don't have competition, nothing will ever happen.
But that the competition comes from the former Soviet Union really
gravels me. I have to say that."
Despite its ties with Russia, Tito's trip energized Rogers. "It
changes everything," he says. "We know it can be done. We know
that we can survive. We know that people can make money from it."
For the past 15 years, he has been proselytizing that it is our right
to travel in space. Today he works pro bono as chief scientist of the
Space Transportation Association, an advocacy group that operates out
of offices in a vaguely futuristic, wedge-shaped high-rise in Shirlington.
His group shares the office with High Frontier Inc., a nonprofit think
tank devoted to promoting the Space Defense Initiative. ("Demanding
our nation be protected from ballistic missile attack," High Frontier's
Web site proclaims.) The two groups share a common interest in reducing
the cost per pound to put stuff in orbit but for very different purposes.
"Whatever else this country is doing in space," Rogers once
told Congress, "our very character as Americans dictates that we
should be opening up space for the general public."
When Rogers first started talking in public about space tourism, his
wife, Estelle, refused to come hear him speak. "I can't stand people
laughing at you," she told him. Today, as one Federal Aviation Administration
official puts it, "space tourism now passes the laugh test."
quite apparent when you walk into the lobby of Space Adventures in
Ballston that it is an unusual travel agency: Plastic models of Russian
Soyuz rockets are the eye-catching decor. Posters touting women in
space and mapping out the solar system decorate its conference room
Space Adventures is the company that takes credit for the idea of sending
Dennis Tito into space with the Russians and it is working right now
with Mark Shuttleworth, a 27-year-old South African dot-com millionaire
who is negotiating with the Russians to be the next space tourist.
"We're going to have a profound effect on the future," says Eric
Anderson, the earnest 27-year-old who helped found Space Adventures. It is
Anderson and his three-year-old company that are most directly addressing the
question of whether there is a market for space tourism.
Space Adventures is best known for booking tourist rides in Russian MiG-25
Foxbats. For about $13,000, you can fly from a Moscow airport at 2.5
times the speed of sound to an altitude of 16 miles, the highest and
fastest ride available to those who are not astronauts or fighter pilots.
To date, 65 tourists have taken those rides.
Now Anderson and his company are preparing to open the lower reaches
of space to a much wider audience. They are planning to sell hour-long
rides that will essentially duplicate the 1961 suborbital flights of
Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, reaching an altitude of 60 miles but not
actually going into orbit. (To win astronaut wings you have to reach
an altitude of 50 miles, more than three times higher than those MiG
Anderson acknowledges that in its early days, space tourism is bound
to be terrifying, uncomfortable and, yes, dangerous. But then again,
so is climbing Mount Everest. Yet every year more than 100 people paying
more than $50,000 each reach the summit (and, on average, three a year
die trying). Tito was airsick during the two-day ride to the space station,
but, once there, he reported back to Earth, "I don't know about
this adaptation that they're talking about. I'm already adapted. I love
Even with the risks, proponents believe there are enough people who want
space vacations to create the economies of scale needed to reduce the
cost of putting stuff in orbit. The current cost of $10,000 per pound
has to fall to something more like $100 per pound to make commercial
space travel viable.
Space tourism boosters point to polling data in which people say they
would pay good money to fly into space. But the most convincing evidence
of a potential market is this: More than 100 companies and individuals
have made cash deposits on the $100,000 suborbital flights Space Adventures
is touting. Their deposits, $1.7 million in all, sit in a Space Adventure
trust account. And keep this in mind: They've made the deposits even
though development of a vehicle to provide the ride is years away. Those
who book suborbital rides with Space Adventures will undergo a mere four
days of training for what is expected to be a one-hour flight. Unlike
Shepard and Grissom, these tourists won't splash down in the ocean. They
will take off and land from a "spaceport." When it's over,
Anderson says with the practiced polish of a successful salesman making
his closing pitch, "they'll join that exclusive class of 406 people
who have flown in space."
Many of those booking reservations with Space Adventures are companies
like First USA Bank and Pizza Hut, who are looking for promotional opportunities.
No one has announced exactly how those promotions would work but the
possibilities include contests with space rides as prizes. One individual
with a seat reserved is Wally Funk, one of 13 women who trained with
the original Mercury astronauts in the early 1960s but never got a ride. "I
want to go. My heart's in it," the 62-year-old pilot said from her
home in Trophy Club, Tex., where she teaches flying. "You don't
know how sick I was that I didn't get to go. I didn't hold it against
NASA. They had their parameters. When I was rejected by the Mercury program
I knew one day I'd be a paying passenger." Funk's late mother, who
encouraged her daughter to fly, made provisions in her will to pay for
When Anderson talks about the future of space tourism, he points to
other benefits. For example, vehicles capable of hauling sightseers
into orbit could also be used for rapid, point-to-point transportation.
Washington to Sydney in 45 minutes, for example. Anderson believes "space business
jets" capable of flying his suborbital missions will be available
in three years, an optimistic timeline, according to the people at NASA,
where they put the figure at five to seven years.
The FAA, which will have to license such flights, has yet to develop
safety standards for commercial spaceships. No one has even applied for
a license to test such a vehicle. And just how safe should space flight
be before the FAA licenses vacation jaunts?
Daniel S. Goldin, who recently retired as NASA administrator after
nine years on the job, says that NASA's professional space shuttle
crews know there is "a 1 in 250 probability they are not coming back."
He contrasts that with a 1 in 20,000 probability flying air combat and
1 in 2 million for commercial airline passengers. "This is very
serious stuff," he says, and should be reserved for highly trained
"It is not for the faint of heart. This is not Disneyland."
spur the development of safe, reliable, reusable and economical spaceships, space tourism promoters have turned to one of aviation's great traditions:
prizes. The history of aviation advances is marked by competitions,
such as the 1909 $2,500 London Daily Mail Prize for the first powered
flight across the English Channel, the Guggenheim prizes in the late
1920s to promote air safety and the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles
Lindbergh won in 1927 for flying the "Spirit of St. Louis" from
New York to Paris, the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight. In
that spirit, a 40-year-old St. Louis businessman, Peter Diamandis,
has organized the X Prize (with a goal of $10 million) for the first
group to send a vehicle capable of carrying three people 60 miles up
and back, and then repeating the feat within two weeks using the same
vehicle. The idea being that until vehicles can be turned around quickly
and inexpensively, the cost of space travel will never decrease. The
shuttle, for instance, takes months and millions of dollars to prepare
Diamandis organized the prize because, he says, "I want to personally
travel in space." It is a fascination that began when, as a fourth-grader,
he watched the Apollo mission to the moon. He went on to earn undergraduate
and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and a medical degree from Harvard. He has done
research in molecular genetics, space medicine and launch vehicle design. "I
spent 10 years in grad school getting my medical degree and graduate
degree because I wanted to be an astronaut," he says. But then he
calculated the odds of being picked -- about 1,000 to 1. "And then
I'd only get to travel into space three or four times," he says. "That's
not my vision of the future I want to live. In my vision of the future,
space is a place for entrepreneurs and explorers and pioneers and adventurers."
Twenty groups have entered the contest, but no one is especially close
to actually launching. None have entered into even the most preliminary
discussions with the FAA. "I am expecting to have to pay up in the
2003 time frame," he says. Assuming he can raise the $10 million.
He says he's about halfway there. (If you put up the other $5 million,
the X in X Prize may become your name.)
Some of the seed money for the prize came from the family foundation
set up and run by Rogers. "Not much, but it's enough," Rogers
"We gave him money to get money."
Then there's the $10,000 Bigelow Prize being offered by Las Vegas real
estate magnate Robert Bigelow. It is an award to be given annually to
the American individual or group that contributes the most "toward
the promotion and/or use of space for private enterprise purposes without
government ownership." The prize, awarded for the first time last
summer, went to Spacehab Inc., a provider of commercial space services,
including habitat modules, laboratory modules and cargo carriers for
NASA's space shuttles. Spacehab donated the prize to a scholarship program
for young people interested in space.
Bigelow is not a rocket scientist. He got rich owning apartments and
Budget Suites of America, a string of motels in the Southwest. Now 57,
Bigelow grew up in Las Vegas, which, he says, in the 1950s was like a
setting for a science fiction movie: bright lights; children, including
Bigelow, standing in school playgrounds watching nuclear bomb mushroom
clouds over the Nevada test site; waves of fighter planes screaming overhead
from Nellis Air Force Base breaking windows as they broke the sound barrier;
and a series of UFO sightings. "That was when the fantasy began,"
he says in a telephone interview. "I've been waiting to get into
what I've started for over 40 years."
Two years ago he formed Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas. Naturally enough,
being an innkeeper, "I decided what I wanted to do was approach
it from a destination point of view," he says. Hotels in outer space?
"We're talking guesthouse here," he says. "Something far
His team of two dozen engineers and scientists is working on an inflatable
structure with a multilayered Kevlar skin that he says would be cheaper
and stronger than the existing space station, which he describes as an
"I'm prepared to spend a lot, but there's a line," he says.
"I'm going to be investing hundreds of millions in this venture,"
in addition to his annual $10,000 prize. "We're going to have some
fun, and we might even make a difference."
space to a wider public, Rogers believes, and "things will go
on that NASA never thought of." To illustrate that, he points
to William Stone, whom Rogers described as a guy "who wants to
jump from the shuttle."
Stone does not describe what he has in mind as jumping from the shuttle.
Stone, a sane and competent man, heads the construction metrology and
automation group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology,
an arm of the Commerce Department. That means he works on things like
robots for construction and remote sensing. But that's just his day job.
He describes himself as a "semiprofessional explorer," who
has fielded multimillion-dollar expeditions exploring not outer space
but underwater space. He led an expedition in the late 1990s that mapped
the Wakulla Springs, Fla., caverns, an undertaking that involved inventing
and building equipment that allows divers to spend up to 12 hours at
depths of 300 feet. It was the subject of a National Geographic documentary.
Now Stone has turned his attention to space travel. He has come up with
what he believes is a way to return safely and economically from space
stations (building the space stations and getting up there is someone
else's problem). His system, which he won't describe in detail for competitive-business
reasons, would fit in a couple of duffel bags and weigh about 500 pounds.
His reusable device would return passengers softly to any spot on Earth
with an accuracy of 100 meters, he says. All for only $3 million to $5
million in development costs. By contrast, he said NASA's approach to
return vehicles could cost $100 million to implement.
"We're talking about building something novel that's not built by Lockheed," he
says. "The idea here is to make the thing usable by anybody."
Goldin is, in fact, a big believer in space tourism. Or so he says,
sitting back in his chair with his cowboy-booted legs crossed as technicians
in his office fiddle with a new, high-definition television monitor
that he can't get to work. This idea would come as a great surprise
to many in the space tourism world. For them, NASA and Goldin in particular
have been favorite targets. In the view of many space tourism proponents,
Goldin's opposition to Tito's visit to the space station was wrongheaded.
Goldin ran NASA from 1992 until last month, making him its longest-serving
administrator. A poor kid from the South Bronx who had 25 years with
defense contractor TRW before joining NASA, Goldin managed to survive
the first Bush administration, two terms of the Clinton administration
and the first year of the second Bush administration by being pretty
adroit. But he also doesn't mince words. "Flying rich guys and gals
in space is not space tourism," he says.
Goldin believes it will be decades before the price for orbital flights
comes down to levels that even people as well paid as he is could afford.
In the meantime, untrained tourists like Tito just get in the way of
serious work being done in the space station and put everyone at risk.
He points to what happened on the submarine USS Greeneville last February.
Its bridge crowded with VIP tourists, the Greeneville surfaced under
and sank a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine. "This is not playtime," he
Rogers says too much of the discussion today centers on the barriers
to putting tourists in space rather than on the opportunities. "Think
ahead 30 years," he says. "What will have happened by then
will be the beginning of [space] emigration. There will be more and more
people staying longer and longer."
He won't be one of them, however. Rogers had a hard attack a year and
a half ago. "Up until [then], I would have gone. I would just be
able to look down and see the Earth and contemplate what I'd be seeing."
Instead, he says, he'll continue to spend his time thinking about what
all those space travelers of the future will be doing. And what will
that be? Medical research, manufacturing, and, at the far end of the
spectrum, he says, "dance will be completely different."
© 2001 Robert Hodierne
story originally appeared in the December 9, 2001, issue of the Washington
Post Sunday Magazine.