By Robert Hodierne

Tom 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. Unbelievable!"

Rogers 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 back.

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.

The 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.")

Before 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.

At 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."

It's 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 walls.

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 Foxbat rides.)

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 space!" 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 the flight.

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 professionals. "It is not for the faint of heart. This is not Disneyland."

To 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 for reuse.

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 says. "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 more modest."

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 "aluminum can."

"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."

Open 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."

Dan 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 says.

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

This story originally appeared in the December 9, 2001, issue of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine.