Posted by Tom Foremski - June 7, 2011
For a self-described redneck, Morris Jarvis sure doesn't fit the mold. For one thing, he's a building information modeling project manager in suburban Phoenix, not a poor Southern farmer as the true definition of "redneck" suggests. Jarvis also has a college degree -- in aerospace engineering, no less. And not one of his leather belts is personalized.
Oh, and the man has a spaceship in his garage. And he wants to send people into space using standard off-the-shelf technology.
The spacecraft is the real deal as far as prototypes go. And once he's fully funded, Jarvis plans to take the craft on suborbital test flights around Earth en route to a final version he hopes will eventually carry paying passengers.
"If I wrote a book it would be called, 'Redneck Rocket Scientist: The Older I Get the Faster I Was,'" Morris said, smiling as what he was standing next to - a quarter-scale NASA space shuttle, basically -- hardly helped sell the country bumpkin image he tries to project.
If Jarvis ever does write that book his friends say he should, it would probably begin with what he describes as a "dysfunctional childhood" that took him to a ranch in New Mexico and the east-central Arizona towns of Eager and Springerville. At times he lived with no radio or TV, other times he earned money splitting wood. But even if he did flirt with a sub-sophisticated lifestyle, his destiny for great things later in life was determined at the age of 4 when he watched the moon landing along with the rest of the TV-accessible world.
"I hunkered down in front of the TV. I was glued to the set," he said. "I struggle with the question of when I got an interest in space because there was never that moment, but I do remember the moon landing."
At the age of 12, Morris built his first liquid rocket engine with alcohol found in the garage and oxygen used for much different purposes by his ailing mother. The result was what they call in model rocketry as a "CATO," an acronym that stands for "Catastrophic Take Off." Or "Catastrophe At Take Off" depending on who you talk to.
"I didn't understand the concept of cooling yet," he recalled. "After a couple of seconds it was glowing and you could tell this wasn't going to be good. I ran for cover and the rocket blew up. It shattered. My mom came running out just in time to see me putting the last of the fire out."
And this man wants to take you into space.
Balloon assisted launch...
"Since then I got an aerospace engineering degree and got better on that sort of thing," Jarvis said with a confident smile. "I understand that cooling is a big deal now."
Had Jarvis not taken a 2-year assignment in Ireland for his day job with Intel, where he's worked for 14 years, the Hermes Spacecraft project might have been at the next stage by now. That's conducting simulated landing tests with the craft attached to a trailer at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This involves a high-altitude balloon that stretches 400 feet in diameter taking the craft to about 110,000 feet, then gliding back to Earth.
"That's taking the spacecraft to 3 percent atmosphere. You're basically in space," Jarvis said.
Initial test flights would be remote-controlled, but later could be piloted, according to Jarvis, who said the last step is to build a final version of the Hermes with a heat-resistant carbon composite skin and attached to a hybrid rocket powered first stage. After reaching approximately 150,000 feet, the Hermes would then detach and fire either a self-built engine or, if there's funding, an XLR99 rocket engine now sitting inside an old craft in California that was developed for the Air Force's X-15 project.
After expending its fuel, the Hermes would then coast to reach a max altitude of 70 miles above the earth before arching over for its zero "g" return to the atmosphere. Once back inside the Earth's atmosphere, the Hermes would then glide back to Earth for a runway landing.
Intel technology powers most of the data gathering, test and communications systems of the Hermes, named for the mythological Greek messenger of the gods. Showcasing the capabilities of its high-performance, low-power platform products, Intel asked Jarvis to transport the Hermes to the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in 2008. The craft's first public display was a show-and-tell for the new Intel EP80579 Integrated Processor SoC [system on chip] product line and the Intel Atom processor Z5xx series.
Bought at Fry's...
"This is all off-the-shelf technology," Jarvis said. "These are the same chips available to the public, as is everything else used in the making of the Hermes. The math is there, the hard physical science is out there. Nothing new - it's all cookbook stuff."
Jarvis makes it sound so easy. But besides know-how, who you know is as important for a project like this. Besides corporate support during various stages from ADI Engineering, Dot Hill, GE Fanuc, MicroSun and National Instruments, in addition to Intel, Jarvis has the backing of several people he affectionately calls "fellow dreamers."
Among them is John Oliver, an Intel computer architect and hardware designer who designed and built the remote cockpit for test use and is currently helping with marketing and fundraising. Steve Reed, another Intel employee who works in the Embedded and Communication Group, was instrumental in program approval and funding.
The most decorated "dreamer" has already lived the dream. Retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, the first person to fly on six Space Shuttle missions, attended the developer conference where the Hermes was on display. When asked by a journalist if he'd "fly in that thing," Musgrave responded "sign me up" and even volunteered to pilot the Hermes' first manned test.
Like with so many dreams, it's all a matter of time and money, with an emphasis on the latter.
"When you're working out of your own pocket, like we are, you take baby steps," Jarvis said. "To do the first balloon launch we need $1.5 million." The price tag for the first rocket launch is roughly $5.5 million.
"Honestly, the only thing that separates me from Burt Rutan and Richard Branson is money," Jarvis said, referring to the designer and maverick billionaire who, by this time next year, could be sending well-heeled Virgin Galactic passengers to the same destination as where the Hermes would go.
"Branson is charging $200,000 a ride and collecting $20,000 down payments," Jarvis said. "He already has more than $60 million in down payments. There's a lot of money in this business and we want to be a direct competitor to Virgin Galactic.
"Hopefully at some point we'll get that angel investor who wants to dive right in."
When that day arrives, by Jarvis' calculations the balloon launch could happen within a year and the first rocket test maybe a half-year later.
The frustrating thing for Jarvis and team is there had been funding over the years, but much of that dried up, along with a documentary on the Discovery Channel, due to the economy and that Ireland gig.
"Stars misaligned," he said. "I went away and everyone knew that if I wasn't pushing things the project would slow down. Then the economy just cratered. Programs like this are the first to get cut. It's no fault of anyone's."
No stranger to economic crashes - "I'd rather deal with those than the other kind," - Jarvis was forced to scrap the forerunner to the Hermes because of the dot-com crash of 2000. "The investor we had lined up lost his ass," he said.
The remnants of that project are in his backyard, along with a few of the 14 total cars and trucks that remind Jarvis why he convinced his wife to not live under the rules of a homeowner association. Some of the four-wheeled machines are eyesores -- rusted, dented, tattered interiors -- but Jarvis, who, yep, is into ground vehicles, too, is quick to point out that all but one runs and what's under the hood for some would excite subscribers of "Car and Driver."
"I bought a shop and my wife got a house in the process," Jarvis laughed as he stood in front of his East Mesa home, which had the selling point of a canal right-of-way on two sides and a retention basin on another. "The only real neighbor I have is a bigger redneck than I am."
As for Susan, his wife of 3 years, "not including a 5-year engagement and being together for 15 years plus," Jarvis said she doesn't share his passion for space and speed. "Amazingly understanding" is how he describes her. No doubt hubby scored points when after returning from Ireland he named the spacecraft the "Sensational Susan."
Morris Jarvis shows off his spaceship.