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UA graduate working on craft to take passengers 62 miles above Earth

He sees suborbital flights costing $30K

Morris Jarvis, an engineer for Intel Corp., stands next to the space shuttle he is building at his home in Mesa.

Morris Jarvis, an engineer for Intel Corp., stands next to the space shuttle he is building at his home in Mesa.

MESA – Morris Jarvis thinks we should be living in the age of the Jetsons, and he intends to make it happen. Jarvis, an engineer for Intel Corp., spends his spare time working on a space shuttle in the garage of his east Mesa home.

His ambitions are lofty: to build a spacecraft that can launch passengers on a suborbital space flight and bring them back to Earth safely.

He insists it isn’t a crazy pipe dream. The technology to build spacecraft is available off-the-shelf to entrepreneurs and inventors who know how to use it, he said.

And he sees a substantial market, noting that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company has collected about $30 million in down payments from people who want to ride into space in a spacecraft he’s developing with Bert Rutan’s Scaled Composites Co. “It sounds like there’s a lot of money in this business,” Jarvis said.

And, indeed, the suborbital launch market has attracted a lot of would-be players. The Federal Aviation Administration/Office of Commercial Space Transportation Web site lists 18 commercial ventures working on vehicles to take passengers and payloads to the edge of space – internationally defined as 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, above the Earth’s surface.

Jarvis thinks his space shuttle for the masses – which he calls Hermes, after the Greek messenger god – will do even better, flying to about 70 miles.

A study for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation agrees that a viable space tourism industry is developing.

“Market surveys have shown considerable interest in suborbital space flight by members of the public, including those able to afford ticket prices of around $100,000 to $200,000 per flight,” the study said.

As a child, Jarvis followed the early space flights avidly and read every book he could find on the subject. Later he attended the University of Arizona and graduated with an aerospace engineering degree.

“It was always a passion of mine, watching the Apollo guys,” he said, adding that “there isn’t a geek out there who hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut,”

In 1993, Jarvis formed his own company, STAR Systems, to develop the Hermes spacecraft, although the idea had been floating around in his mind long before that.

He finalized the design in 2002 and built a fiberglass and wood mock-up, which he unveiled at the Intel Developer Forum in August in San Francisco.

Jarvis got a lot of attention and offers of help at the show, even from ex-astronaut Story Musgrave, who took a seat at the controls in the four-passenger cabin.

Jarvis also got some unexpected attention at the show from FBI investigators, who wondered why Jarvis was trying to import rocket engines from Poland.

“They actually were pretty nice,” Jarvis said of the G-men. “We went out to lunch, and they checked out my papers. I think they figured I was half-a-bubble off, but I was harmless enough.”

Still, Jarvis dropped his plan to import engines for the Hermes from Poland. Instead, he plans to use an engine available in California that is like the ones used in the X-15 rocket plane of the 1960s.

“All the parts are out there on the shelf if you want them,” he said. “I’m not out to reinvent the wheel. That’s the secret of keeping it inexpensive – finding what’s out there and building around it.”

The next step is to rebuild the prototype using flight-certified materials and conduct simulated landing tests with the craft attached to a trailer at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The last step will be to build a final version of the Hermes with a heat-resistant carbon composite skin that would take off from a runway attached to a turbine-powered engine pod that would take the craft to 100,000 feet. The reusable vehicle would have to be certified as space-worthy by the FAA before any such flight could be attempted.

Jarvis believes he can offer flights to the public for an affordable $25,000 to $30,000 – cheap enough for just about everyone to experience.

The main thing preventing this dream from becoming reality is money. Jarvis figures he has sunk about $250,000 into Hermes so far — most of it his own money — and he needs to raise another $5.4 million to get the craft to space.

So why would anyone want to invest in his venture?

“This is a chance to get in on the ground floor,” he said of the fledgling space shuttle industry. “There are viable businesses in this.”

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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