The idea of launching 3D-printed rockets into space sounds crazy. Then again, so is the thought of hurling tons of equipment and human astronauts to a gravity-free orbiting lab. When it comes to space travel, nothing is too outlandish to try.
A rocket startup called Relativity Space has certainly bought into that philosophy. Even though it is still developing its 3D-printed rocket, the startup just made a major expansion. It recently signed an agreement that allows it to fly rockets out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. Along with its lease of a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Relativity Space now has the ability to send its rockets to orbit from either coast of the United States.
Expanding Launch Zone
Relativity announced last January that it had signed an agreement allowing it to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It is currently working on construction for that site and plans to use it for the inaugural flight of its rocket, the Terran 1, in late 2021.
Now, the ambitious startup has signed a “Right of Entry Agreement” with Vandenberg Air Force Base. Relativity hopes to take over a site called Building 330 and the surrounding land to create a new launchpad.
Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity Space, says, “We have a site identified; we’ve gone through a program review; we’ve done the initial paperwork for actually getting the first step towards a site awarded. It means that we’re actually launching from this facility.”
Ellis notes that its west coast location will allow Relativity to launch rockets into orbits passing north to south and over poles. It couldn’t do that with only a launch site in Florida.
“I mean when you look at how many companies are actually bicoastal and have major launch facilities, it’s a huge sign of confidence in Relativity’s approach,” he says.
Despite being founded in 2015, Relativity Space still hasn’t launched a rocket. Of course, that makes sense considering the colossal amount of work that has gone into the process. The Los Angeles-based startup aims to create the first fully 3D-printed rocket.
That includes everything from the body to the engine propellant tanks. Doing so helps dramatically bring down costs. It also decreases the number of engineers and workers needed to build each rocket. Getting there was a lot more work.
Traditional 3D printers simply weren’t up to the task. So, Relativity started out by developing its own 3D printer, called Stargate, to bring its dream to life.
Currently, the startup is developing its first rocket, the Terran 1, and eyes a late-2021 date for its first launch. To help further develop its 3D-printed rocket, Relativity recently moved to a massive 120,000-square-foot facility in Long Beach, California.
As Relativity Space expands its launch possibilities, the startup is gaining traction with customers. It already inked a deal with satellite operator Iridium to launch six new satellites aboard the Terran 1. Notably, Relativity will launch each satellite one at a time from its new Vandenberg location.
Ellis says that the site, and its unique 3D-printing technique, won his company the deal. “That’s why Iridium chose us. It was just confidence in our ability to get a successful launch off, and then also how disruptive the payload performance capability was and price that we’re able to provide because of that 3D-printing tech.”
The startup notes that each flight of its Terran 1 rocket will start at $10 million. It is capable of carrying payloads of roughly 2,755 pounds to low Earth orbit.
Piecing Things Together
All startup CEOs know that there is no easy way of doing things. For a company as disruptive as Relativity, that’s especially true. Even so, the spaceflight startup is starting to put the pieces together.
In its short lifespan, Relativity has made significant strides towards achieving its goal of creating an entirely 3D-printed rocket. That includes successful engine tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Part of that success can be attributed to the wealth of talent Relativity continues to attract. In May, the startup hired Zachary Dunn, a former SpaceX employee. Dunn worked for Elon Musk’s spaceflight company for more than a decade. During that time, he served as the senior vice president of production and launch. Having his expertise on board is an invaluable resource as Relativity continues to scale its operations.
In terms of actually testing its Terran 1 rocket, Ellis notes that the company will be ready to start doing so later this year. That being said, there is still a long road ahead.
As with all things, money makes the road a little easier to travel. Last year, Relativity announced that it has raised a total of $185 million. That sort of funding means it is equipped to pay for its first commercial missions—whenever they begin. Moreover, it has helped Relativity continue to hire new talent amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic trials.
Fighting for Respect
Although Relativity Space certainly has an interesting approach to spaceflight, it is hardly the only startup making waves in the industry. Several other companies are pitching their own unique takes on the future of space travel.
For one, Rocket Lab is focusing on cheap launches for light payloads. Its Electron rocket can be produced quickly and carries things like small satellites and sensors. The startup currently has plans to deliver a NASA CubeSat to the moon in early 2021.
Meanwhile, Astra, another spaceflight startup plans to launch missions for just $1 million. It envisions a future with almost daily launches. By embracing the business principle of volume operations, it hopes to undercut the launch market for lighter payloads.
Even more troubling is the fact that larger companies, including SpaceX, are starting to use 3D-printed parts in their own rockets. If they are successful, their size and acclaim could jeopardize Relativity Space’s future.
Of course, that is all hypothetical. If it keeps up at its current pace, Relativity will be launching 3D-printed rockets will profitable payloads in no time. Thanks to its recent deal with Vandenberg, it can now do so from either side of the U.S.