Amid the considerable clutter in Morris Jarvis’ workshop — the one he likes to say came with his east Mesa home — is a whiteboard covered with diagrams and complex math, scribbled in pursuit of fantasy.
On a corner of the board, the ambition is plainly spelled out: “Prepare for world domination!”
Out-of-this-world domination, to be precise, for Jarvis has big dreams for the biggest piece of clutter in the workshop: A spacecraft prototype.
Jarvis, who holds an aerospace engineering degree and is modeling project manager at Intel in Chandler, is looking for a foothold in the next space race — the potentially lucrative market of private flights that would enable those that can afford them a look at Earth that has been seen only by astronauts.
“The thrill of the chase has always been a big part of it for me,” Jarvis said. “To make it a possibility, we had to come up with a business structure, and it turns out that there is some money to be made there. It’s the next Silicon Valley, if you ask me. All of the rich guys are trying to do it, so there is some kind of interest there.”
The highest-profile private space travel dream belongs to British billionaire Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic has been conducting test flights. A ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo costs $200,000, and prospective passengers have made almost $60 million in down payments.
Virgin Galactic has not announced a timeline for commercial flights.
“There are millions of people who would love the chance at becoming astronauts one day, the same way back in the 1920s there were millions of people who wanted to fly one day,” Branson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s enormously exciting for myself that only 430 people have been in space in the last 100 years.
“In the first year, we’ll send 500 people into space, and in time, we’ll bring the price down. In the next 30 years, hundreds of thousands of people will be able to become astronauts … and have the most incredible experience.”
Inspired by watching the Apollo missions as a youth, Jarvis said he first began sketching spacecraft plans in high school. He began the building process in the 1990s.
“When I first started out, I got a lot of ‘Are you nuts?’ ” Jarvis said. “I got laughed out the planet, it seems. But the tables have turned. People aren’t laughing. It’s not science fiction anymore. A lot of companies are looking into it, and it’s becoming more mainstream now.”
Jarvis has put together a team of mechanical and aerospace engineers who believe in the project.
One of them is Mark Longanbach, a spacecraft engineer at Echostar Satellite in Gilbert. He has worked with Jarvis for about a year.
With the space shuttle program ending and NASA examining its role in future manned space flight — the Constellation program that called for lunar landings by the end of the decade was dropped last year — Longanbach said private space exploration can help fill the void.
“In the aerospace industry, you’re starting to see a transformation from a government model to more industry-centric model,” Longanbach said. “We’re hoping to do what we can to capitalize on it. You can equate this to any entrepreneur who works on their garage on something to what we’re doing. NASA seems to becoming more of a regulatory and research body, and that gives a chance to industry to step to plate.”
The current centerpiece of his Hermes Spacecraft project is the four-seat, space shuttle-inspired prototype, which has a 22-foot wingspan and parts that Jarvis has acquired over the years. The skin came from aircraft composites, and the landing gear was purchased on eBay.
The “Sensational Susan” — named for Jarvis’ wife, who he said “is not crazy about, but tolerates” his space dreams — can be used for landing and gliding tests.
Subsequent tests will demand a larger, orbital spacecraft. Jarvis said future Hermes crafts will have six seats.
And the tests require money, lots of it.
A high-altitude balloon test, in which the craft would ascend to about 110,000 feet above Earth, has a price tag of about $1.5 million.
A rocket test, in which the Hermes would detach and fire to an altitude of about 70 miles before a return inside the atmosphere and runway landing, is estimated at $5 million.
“It’s not going to be cheap,” Jarvis said. “But our engineers are very hands-on. And we have 50-odd years of manned space flight in hindsight available to us.”
Jarvis’ timetable took a hit when Intel transferred him to Ireland for two years. His fundraising dried up when the economy slowed.
However, he is hopeful that his “fantasy schedule” — a balloon test in a year, a rocket test in two years — can be the project’s reality. Retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, who has served on six shuttle missions, is among those who have offered their services for a test flight.
“I need to find a test pilot,” Jarvis said. “Everywhere I go, I get offers for it, so finding a pilot should be one of the easiest parts of the whole project. NASA has hundreds of guys who never went into space but got the training. So, there’s a lot of people who would want to do it.”
And customers? There is typically no middle ground, Longanbach said, when it comes to going in space.
“What I’ve found is when I tell people about it, people will give you a blank stare and think you’re crazy, or they will scream and be enthusiastic about it,” Longanbach said. “The two responses are ‘You’re nuts’ and ‘Hell, yes!’ ”
If possible, Jarvis would like to fly in the second seat on the rocket test flight. He has often visualized the experience while sitting in the cockpit of the Sensational Susan, thinking about what it would be like to look down on a massive, fragile planet backdropped by the blackness of space.
“There have been times where I’m like, (forget) it, let’s just bag it in,” Jarvis said. “But after a couple days, I decide that I can’t give up now. I’ve spent a lot of nights in that front seat, imagining what it would be like. And that’s the rush.”
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