Amrah Canu/The Arizona Republic
Amrah Canu/The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX (AP) – He’s chronically short of funds, but Morris Jarvis is bent on building a ship that will make trips beyond Earth affordable to all.
Jarvis, 48, a project manager at Intel, is the head of Space Transport and Recovery Systems, or STAR Systems, a commercial space-travel company based out of his east Mesa home.
STAR Systems originally incorporated in 1993 and has five core employees, with a support group of 75 specialists and volunteers, affectionately called “the pit crew.”
The company has built the Hermes, a prototype shuttle 27 feet long with a 21-foot wingspan. It is a proof-of-concept model, made of lightweight airplane fiberglass built for wind-tunnel and landing tests.
The final version will be built of space-worthy aluminum and steel and have a thermal protection shield for re-entry.
Jarvis compared the prototype to NASA’s space shuttle Enterprise, which never made it to space and was used mainly for landing tests.
The Hermes is an important step for Jarvis, who began designing spacecraft in the 1970s. As a child of the moon-landing era, Jarvis said he gained a fascination for space that, unlike others, he never grew out of. He studied aerospace engineering in college and for years has tinkered with models and designs in his spare time before finally deciding to start STAR.
“My wife is well-versed in the smell of epoxy and paint,” he said.
But design and engineering challenges pale in comparison to Jarvis’ most pressing concern: funding.
If he received $8 million to $10 million today, described as the “bare bones amount,” he could have the first test launch in a year, Jarvis estimates. With the current funding, he could not guess a timetable.
STAR employees have invested somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 of their own money into the project, including a second mortgage Jarvis took out on his home. A recent campaign on Kickstarter, a fundraising website, collected nearly $21,000.
The project had several sponsors, including Intel, but most pulled out when the recession hit.
Jarvis said the company buys “off-the-shelf” parts and uses existing equipment, making the Hermes a “systems integration exercise.” The company saves money by doing no research and development outside of creating a reusable rocket engine, he said.
Jarvis said this approach makes the Hermes slow and clunky by industry standards, because it’s built for safety and cost, not efficiency.
“Turns out I should have learned to have been a billionaire and then played with rockets,” he said.
Jarvis envisions two tour options for his completed Hermes. In the first, a high-altitude balloon will raise the Hermes to 100,000-plus feet, where customers can see the curvature of the Earth.
The second is a rocket-powered option that will put customers in a suborbital trajectory where they can experience weightlessness.
Jarvis predicts the balloon model will hold six passengers, each paying $75,000, while the rocket model will hold four passengers and cost twice as much.
While expensive, it’s cheaper than the $200,000 ride offered by Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, on its vessel SpaceShipTwo.
STAR is part of a growing trend of commercial spaceflight. Last month, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, became the first commercial company to deliver a payload to the International Space Station.
The Federal Aviation Administration has an Office of Commercial Space Transportation that licenses companies for space travel and has designated eight U.S. “spaceports” for commercial launches. To date, there have been 207 commercial launches since the office was formed in 1984.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an association of more than 40 companies, predicted there will be regular commercial flights into space by non-astronauts by the end of next year.
There is definitely a demand that exceeds supply, he said, adding that Virgin Galactic has 500 people on a waiting list, all of whom have made down payments on a seat.
Lopez-Alegria described Jarvis’ efforts as “right in line with other companies,” and that many commercial spaceflight companies are small startups.
These startups are good for the industry because they will increase the number of launches, which will spread out the cost, drive down prices and produce more demand, he said.
“That’s the environment we are trying to create,” Lopez-Alegria said.
Armadillo Aerospace, a seven-man commercial spaceflight company in Heath, Texas, is also striving to provide the astronaut experience without the hefty price tag.
To save money, Armadillo’s approach is the same as Jarvis’: focus on premade parts and create multiple prototypes, according to Neil Milburn, Armadillo’s vice president of program management.
The goal is to learn as many lessons as possible before moving to the next level and spending more money, Milburn said.
“Gravity is unforgiving and so is aerodynamics,” he said.
Armadillo has an advantage over STAR Systems because its founder is John D. Cormack, a millionaire software designer behind such popular video games as Quake and Doom.
Milburn said most companies are backed up by “a new breed of techno-philanthropist.” However, every company will go through an expensive research and development period before tapping into a paying customer base, he said.