Defense Official Became Space Tourism Booster

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thomas F. Rogers, 85, a physicist and former Defense Department deputy director who, in retirement, became a prominent advocate for outer-space tourism, died Feb. 13 of kidney failure at the Vantage House nursing home in Columbia.

Mr. Rogers spent much of his early career as a research administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as deputy director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon.

Starting in the early 1970s, he worked as a consultant, primarily on space travel, and was founding president and chief scientist of Arlington County-based Space Transportation Association, an advocacy group for space-industry companies. From 1982 to 1984, he also served as the space station study director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

The longtime McLean resident never had a driver's license -- "I am not competent to drive," he told The Washington Post in 2001 -- but he had long envisioned regularly scheduled "spaceliners" ferrying tourists to orbital hotels, the moon and beyond.

In 2001, a 60-year-old American financier, Dennis Tito, became the first space tourist, paying a reported $20 million to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket to the international space station, returning to Earth eight days later in a Russian space capsule.

Mr. Rogers was infuriated that Tito had to buy his ticket in Russia.

"Why not space tourism?" he told a gathering of fellow enthusiasts not long afterward. "It should be, and I thought would be, characteristically American. But now, but now, we're behind the Russians again. Unbelievable!"

Mr. Rogers knew about competing with Russia.

As a government scientist in the 1950s and 1960s, he worked on making sure that U.S. nuclear missiles could hit the Soviet Union.

The 1957 Russian launch of the satellite Sputnik galvanized his interest in space. Satellites provided a reliable and efficient way to communicate with strategic forces. In particular, he worked on the problem of communicating with U.S. planes and submarines.

Years later, despite his lingering Cold War concerns, he acknowledged that the Russian space tourism program was a valuable milestone. "It changes everything," he told The Post. "We know it can be done. We know that we can survive. We know that people can make money from it."

Thomas Francis Rogers was born in Providence, R.I. He received a bachelor's degree, with honors, from Providence College in 1945 and a master's degree from Boston College in 1949, both in physics.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Mr. Rogers to move from the Pentagon to the new Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, he headed the department's division of urban research and development.

Mr. Rogers returned to MIT in 1969 and was vice president of the defense contractor Mitre Corp. until his retirement in 1972.

Mr. Rogers acknowledged that some considered his enthusiasm for space tourism more than a little quixotic.

In a 2005 interview with Today's Engineer, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he recalled delivering a talk on civilians traveling in space and afterward finding his wife in tears.

He asked her why she was crying. "Because I can't stand so many people laughing at you," she said.

In 1996, Mr. Rogers, through his family foundation, provided a portion of the seed money for the X Prize, an effort organized by St. Louis businessman Peter Diamandis to spur the development of safe, reliable, reusable and economical space ships.

The first X Prize, $10 million, went to Burt Rutan and the crew of SpaceShipOne for reaching the cusp of space twice in the fall of 2004.

Mr. Rogers expected to be a space tourist himself. He wanted to look down on Earth and contemplate what he was seeing, but a heart attack in 2000 dashed his dream.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Estelle Hunt Rogers of Columbia; three daughters, Hope Grove of Ellicott City, Clare Rogers of Kittery Point, Maine, and Judith Reynolds of Roanoke; a sister; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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