Ad Astra To A Visionary

I’ve just learned that Tom Rogers, former head of the Space Transportation Association, has died. I hadn’t talked to him in a few years, and deeply regret now that I hadn’t. There is so much more to say about him than that he is the former head of the STA, and I’ll make a probably pathetic attempt to do so on the morrow. All that I can say now is that I am more frustrated than usual with this news by the boneheaded space policies that the nation has had for half a century, and all of the dreams that they have crushed, and all of the hard-working and far-sighted people who couldn’t live long enough to see better.

[Update a few minutes later]

Konrad Dannenberg has died as well.

Do space pioneers go in threes, like Hollywood? If so, who’s next? I don’t even want to speculate.

[Late evening update]

Clark Lindsey has some Rogers-related links.

[Tuesday morning update]

There are some more encomia for Tom over at NASA Watch. Here’s one from Courtney Stadd:

I interacted with Tom for over 25 years – both in my capacity as a government official and in my various private sector incarnations. In speaking truth to power, he marshaled his data and did everything he could to persuade the government that the commercial space sector offered innovative and cost effective solutions. And if logic failed to penetrate the prefrontal cortex of his intended target – e.g., a Member of Congress during testimony or an agency official or the audience at a space conference – Tom was legendary for raising his voice to a decibel level that ensured that no one with functional hearing could possibly ignore his key arguments. His footprint was deep and wide – from early pathfinding work on GPS, among other leading edge research (during his tenure heading the Air Force and MIT R&D labs) to the first director of research at Housing and Urban Development. For many years his was a lonely voice in the wilderness as he organized fora on space tourism and funded a series of studies via his Sophron Foundation. (I was a happy recipient of one of his grants many years ago.) His Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) study regarding the issues and challenges of the International Space Station – issued during the Reagan Administration – is a classic in terms of clarity of thought and prescience regarding the cost and policy challenges that have confronted the Space Station in recent years. In a world increasingly populated with self-regarding incrementalists, Tom’s legacy is an inspiration to all of us who believe in the power of big ideas (based on sound principles) and the passion and courage to counter conventional wisdom in pursuit of one’s convictions. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Few embodied this philosophy as well as the late Tom Rogers. Godspeed, Tom.

I was also a grant recipient, about a decade ago. The results were this study on near-term prospects for space tourism. Also over at NASA Watch, Mark Schlather recounts (though he bowdlerizes) Tom’s stock response to anyone who asked him why he wanted to go into space: “None of your goddamned business!” The point being that no one should have to justify to anyone, government or otherwise, why they wanted to go into space or what they wanted to do there. Only if the government was paying for the trip should it care.

I had heard Tom give one of his fire-and-brimstone speeches on commercial space at the Denver ISDC back in the mid-eighties, but I didn’t actually meet him until I attended a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the early nineties, on standardizing commercial space operations. He saw the dreaded word “Rockwell” on my name badge, decided to make me a surrogate for his big-aerospace nemesis, and proceeded to harangue me on everything that the industry was doing wrong, repeatedly calling my company “Rockwell North American.” It took several discussions over the course of the conference before he finally decided that I wasn’t one of those horned devils trying to hold America back in space for purposes of corporate greed. It was the beginning of a wonderful and productive friendship, with breakfasts at the Cosmos Club whenever I was in Washington. Sadly, though, it’s one that I’ve regrettably been remiss in upholding in the last few years on my end.

Tom was a raconteur (to dramatically understate), and he loved to tweak the establishment, though he was deeply of it. For instance, I never saw him not wearing a suit. On the other hand, one of his favorite (non-space-related) stories was when he was invited to a meeting at Orbital Sciences, and was informed that the company dress code was casual. He showed up out in Reston, as usual, in his suit, and walked up to the receptionist behind the counter inside the entrance. She signed him in, and then gently reprimanded him: “Mr. Rogers, you didn’t need to wear a suit. Didn’t anyone tell you that we dress casually here?” He replied, “You don’t understand, dear. I know you can’t see from where you’re sitting, but I’m not wearing any pants.”

Tom had decades of experience in the Beltway, and had learned through an accumulation of (as he often put it) “cleat marks in his back” the difficulty of the task that was laid out for us, and how long it would take. He always cautioned against impatience, and to not expect sudden shifts in policy, or overnight success. He would counsel, instead, to look for smaller signs of optimism, to consider the immense inertia of federal policymaking, and just look for “curvature in the wake” of the policy. It is pretty hard, on a day-to-day basis, to see it. But when one looks back over the past thirty years or so, the ship has changed course considerably, from an era in which it was almost inconceivable that a private entity could put up a satellite (let alone a human) to one in which the FAA is granting launch licenses to suborbital space tourism firms, with prospects on the horizon for private human spaceflight into orbit. And one of the heaviest shoulders on that stiff rudder was Tom Rogers. And wherever he ends up, whether with God or Beelzebub (the latter seems highly unlikely), either of them will have their hands full with him, and he’ll have a great time.

[Bumped to Tuesday morning]

[Update a little later]

Some more thoughts over at NASA Watch from Alan Ladwig (Obama administration space adviser), which I also remember:

He was a great mentor and always had time to share ideas and dispense advice. At various points in my career he would stop by my office to admonish me for focusing on non-priority issues. ‘Ladwig,” he proclaimed, “stop screwing around on page two and page three issues and concentrate on page one!”

I think about this proclamation constantly and although I still get bogged down on the back pages, he gave me a goal to strive towards that I’ll never forget.

The problem with space policy is that it remains on the back pages in general. Tom always advocated a complete scrape-down-to-the-paint approach to remaking space policy (as have I, and even more since meeting and being influenced by him) that the politics and policy inertia simply will not allow.

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