An artist rendering from shows how the 3D printed rockets will look like during take off. This image from Relativity Space is close to becoming true. The spaceport in Cape Canaveral, Florida is considered America’s busiest spaceport, the company Relativity Space is about to become a new tenant. Relativt Space is a startup that shares SpaceX’s ambitious plans of turning humans into a species that can travel far beyond the planet Earth. The new occupant wants to revolutionize how rockets are manufactured by incorporating 3D printing. The company will soon have its very own launch site at the Cape for its future 3D-printed vehicles.
Thanks to a new deal with the US Air Force, the company will be taking over the site called LC-16. This site used to be a launch pad that was once used by the US military to launch ballistic missiles. But since the late 1980s, LC-16 has been dormant. Relativity will move into the area after winning a very competitive bidding process, and the company will modify the pad to suit their rocket technology. In an interview with The Verge, Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space stated
“Getting the launch site agreement was a huge checkmark, That was the final infrastructure piece we need to have a clear path toward launching.”
Relativity has quickly established itself as a serious player in the commercial space industry. The company was founded in 2016 and since then has continued to grow. It also has multiple workspaces in Los Angeles, and it’s currently using facilities at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to test the Aeon engine it’s been working on. Relativity has done 124 test fires of its rocket engine, in pursuit of launching the company’s first rocket by 2020.
Space Relativity plans to modify the entire process of manufacturing rockets. Instead of relying on the traditional, assembly line of machines and people cutting, molding and putting together parts of a vehicle, Relativity wants to make building a rocket almost entirely automated. The way to achieve this goal would be by using giant 3D printers that can create all of the parts needed to build a rocket.
Relativity has the largest metal 3D printer by volume, a machine that’s capable of creating parts that are up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It’s called Stargate. The team built this device from scratch, which means they can scale it up if needed. 95 percent of the rocket will be done through 3-D printing automation, while the other 5 percent will be done through human labor. Most of that human interaction will be centered on testing, shipping, and very small amounts of manual assembly.
Building rockets using 3D printers was introduced for two purposes. First, it’s meant to save money by consolidating the parts needed for each vehicle. Ellis says that the 3D printer they’ve developed can make incredibly complicated parts in just one piece, and Relativity will be able to produce rockets with fewer parts than normal. For instance, Relativity’s engine injector and chamber are made of just three 3D printed parts; traditionally, such sections would require nearly 3,000 parts, says Ellis. “All the complexity is really in the software,” he says. “It’s really what the file and CAD model looks like. The 3D printer doesn’t really care how complex it is. It’s able to make shapes of almost any complexity.”
The team can also quickly adjust the design if needed, simply by changing the software. And 3D printing will allow the company to simplify the manufacturing process, shortening the time it takes to build each rocket. Ellis states
“the goal is to get to a point where it only takes 60 days to manufacture one vehicle. “We’ll be able to achieve that because of the robotic automation and 3D printing technologies”
If all of this works out, Relativity will try to realize its more ambitious long-term goal of building a roket in Mars using 3D printers. Relativity wants to establish a construction business on Mars, along with launching rockets here on Earth. Ellis states:
“I really view us as having two products,” says Ellis. “One is the rockets, the other is the factory.”
Ellis says he was inspired by SpaceX’s core mission to start a settlement on Mars. But he thought there needed to be at least dozens or hundreds of companies working on Mars technologies to make that vision for the future a reality.
Once Space Relativity masters its automation process here on Earth, the company hopes to ship their printers to Mars via rockets to see if they can create vehicles capable of launching from the Red Planet using raw metallic materials. If successful, Relativity will push mankind forward and could provide a service that both scientists and engineers have dreamed about for decades: a way to leave Mars once you get there. So far, only hardware has being able to land on Mars, but not come back. Being able to launch from Mars would be useful for getting humans off the planet or even collecting samples of Martian rocks in order to return them to Earth for study.
Relativity is now focused on proving that it can build and launch rockets from Earth in this newly automated way, and the company’s team is also set on completing this goal. The company has grown to a team of 60 people, 12 of which are already well-respected leaders in the private spaceflight industry. The company has also raised all of its funding purely through venture capital. So with this new deal announced today, Relativity is the first venture-backed launch company to set up shop at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which also hosts aerospace giants like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance.
Customers are excited about what Relativity has to offer. Ellis says the company has gathered more than $1 billion in potential contracts from customers, and with the new launch site, it’s building out a manifest of future launches. The team is also collaborating with NASA on new propulsion capabilities.
Ellis hopes the success of Relativity serves as an inspiration for other companies to work on technologies needed for Mars. Perhaps other organizations might want to work on new remote energy generation or mining technologies that could be used on both our planet and the one next door. Ellis told The Verge:
“I hope we inspire 12 or 100 companies to want to go to Mars and do the same mission, And then we all work on different parts of this. That’s really the vision to me.”