America's most crowded space port in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is about to get a new tenant: a startup that shares SpaceX's ambitious plans to turn people into a multi-planet species. The new occupier is LA Launching Provider, Relativity Space, a company that wants to revolutionize how missiles are produced using fully automated 3D printing. The company will soon have its own launch site at Cape for its future 3D print vehicles.
Thanks to a new understanding with the US Air Force, Relativity will take a seat at Cape Canaveral Air Station LC-16. It is a buffer that was once used by the US Army to launch ballistic missiles Titan and Pershing. But at the end of the 1980s, the LC-16 was inactive. Air Force has chosen Relativity to move to the area after a very competitive bidding process, and the company will change the pad to suit its missile technology. "Getting the launch deal was a huge mark," says Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Space Relativity, The Verge. "This was the piece of final infrastructure that we need to have a clear path to launch."
In the last year, relativity has quickly established itself as a serious player in the commercial space industry. The company, which was set up in 2016, raised more than $ 45 million in funding. It also has multiple workspaces in Los Angeles and is currently using facilities at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to test the Aeon engine it is working on. For the time being, Relativity made 124 test shots of its rocket engine, aiming to launch the company's first missile by 2020.
This vehicle will be called Terran 1, a sign for human explorers in computer games StarCraft. Also, it will not be very high: at about 10-foot height, the rocket will be a small and medium sized launcher capable of moving about 1,250 kilograms on Earth's orbit, which is about the same weight as the Honda Civic. This is a small task compared to the 50,000 pounds (22,800 kilograms) that SpaceX's Falcon 9 can carry in orbit. But Ellis says the real revolutionary aspect of the vehicle will be how it was made.
The purpose of relativity is to interrupt the whole process of making missiles. "Over the last 60 years, the way rockets have been built has not really changed," says Ellis. Instead of relying on the traditional and complicated assembly line of cars and people by sculpting and combining the parts of a vehicle, Relativity wants to make an almost completely automated rocket. The trick? Using giant 3D printers that can create all the parts needed to build a rocket – from engines to propulsion tanks and structure.
At the company's headquarters in Los Angeles, Relativity has the largest 3D metal printer, a machine capable of creating parts that are up to 20 feet tall and 10 meters wide. It's called Stargate, another sign StarCraft and the team designed this printer from scratch, which means I can scrub it if necessary. Ellis says that, relying on such printers for production, the team will be able to produce about 95% of the rocket through 3D printing. The last 5 percent still requires human labor. Most of this human interaction will focus on testing, shipping and very small amounts of manual assembly.
Building rockets in this way is meant to serve two purposes for the company. First, it is meant to save money by consolidating the required parts for each vehicle. Ellis says the 3D printer they have developed can make parts incredibly complicated in one piece and he claims that relativity will be able to produce rockets with 100 times fewer pieces than usual. For example, the Injector and Relativity engine chamber are made of three 3D printed parts; Traditionally, such sections would require nearly 3,000 pieces, says Ellis. "All the complexity is really in the software," he says. "It's exactly what the CAD file and model look like." The 3D printer does not care how complex it is, it's capable of shaping almost any complexity. "
Also, the team can quickly adjust the design if needed, simply by changing the software. 3D printing will allow the company to simplify the manufacturing process, reducing the time required to build each missile. Ellis says the goal is to get to a point where it takes just 60 days to produce a vehicle. "We will do that because of robotic automation technologies and 3D printing technologies," he says.
If all this works, relativity will try to achieve its more ambitious long-term goal: taking this manufacturing process to Red Planet and building a missile using 3D printers on Mars. Finally, Relativity wants to establish a construction business on our planet neighbor, along with the launch of rockets here on Earth. "I think we have two products," says Ellis. "One is the rocket, the other is the factory."
Ellis, a former Blue Origin propulsion engineer, says he was inspired by SpaceX's basic mission of starting a deal on Mars. But he believed there must be at least tens or hundreds of companies working on Mars' technologies to make this vision for the future come true. To illustrate his point of view, he refers to one of SpaceX's animations, which shows the company's future Mars missile, Starship's ship, landing on the surface of the red planet. "The door opens and the astronauts come out and there is nothing there," he says. "It really has to be a company that will actually work on building technology."
Relativity now hopes to come. Once he has mastered the automation process here on Earth, the company hopes to lower their printers and carry them on rockets to see if they can create vehicles capable of launching from the Red Planet using raw metal. If it succeeded, relativity could provide a service that both scientists and engineers dreamed of for decades: a way to leave Mars once you get there. Until now, we only landed hardware on Mars, but we did not bring it back. Being able to launch on Mars would be useful to take people off the planet or even collect samples of Martian rocks to bring them back to Earth for study. Ellis says the company has already given birth to the curiosity of NASA, who hopes to bring evidence from Mars to Earth one day.
For now, relativity is focused on proving that he can build and launch rockets on Earth in this automatic way and has a credible team working for this purpose. The company has grown to a team of 60 people, of whom 12 are already well-respected leaders in the private space industry. This includes Tim Buzza, one of SpaceX's oldest engineers. The company has raised all its funding exclusively through venture capital. So with this new deal announced today, Relativity is the first business launch company to set up a store at Cape Canaveral Air Station, which also hosts aerospace giants such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance.
Customers seem to be excited about what relativity has to offer. Ellis says the company has earned more than $ 1 billion in potential customer contracts, and with the new launch site, builds a future release manifesto. The team also collaborates with NASA for new propulsion capabilities.
Finally, however, Ellis hopes that the success of relativity serves as an inspiration for other companies to work on the technologies needed for Mars. Perhaps other organizations may want to work on new offshore energy technologies or mining technologies that could be used on both our planet and the other. "I hope we will inspire 12 or 100 companies to want to go to Mars and do the same mission," says Ellis. "And then we all work in different parts of this thing. This is really the vision for me.