Relativity Space has the audacious goal of 3D printing 95 percent of a rocket and sending it to orbit. Getting to space is hard… And completely reinventing how rockets are manufactured at the same time? Six-year-old upstart Relativity may do both by the end of this year. After several years designing, building, and testing their Terran 1 rocket, they’re nearly ready. This week the company gave a progress report. The second stage of the Terran 1 they hope to launch later this year is now complete.
Why 3D Print Rockets?
Historically, building rockets has been a time-consuming, hands-on process.
In the case of the Space Shuttle, for example, fabricating the rocket part that injects streams of fuel into an engine’s thrust chamber, called the shear-coaxial injector, took two years. Relativity can print one in two weeks.
The company says 3D printing benefits, like vastly simplified designs that can only be achieved additively, accelerated prototyping, and design flexibility, apply too. They’ve been able to cut the number of parts in a rocket from upwards of 60,000 to 730 and significantly dial back development lead times.
Whatever the benefits on Earth, Relativity also has its eyes on Mars. Far from Earth’s factories and supply chains, the advantages are clear. Relativity’s moonshot is to perfect their machines to the point they can send printers and raw materials to Mars and simply print return rockets on site.
All this has attracted plenty of attention from investors. The company’s raised over $685 million so far, including $500 million last November at a valuation of $2.3 billion. They also have several billion dollars’ worth of contracts in the pipeline, CEO Tim Ellis said last month.
They’re making good progress, but there are plenty of unanswered questions. The rocket will launch later this year. After testing over the summer, Relativity aims to assemble the first and second stages for launch in Florida. Launch dates are always subject to change, but they’re currently still on schedule for 2021.
When asked about the chances the rocket will make orbit, Ellis said, “The expectation is that we’re going to learn a lot.”
Expectations are more suitably tempered for test rockets these days. SpaceX’s widely followed test launches have normalized very public, very fiery failures. SpaceX is still, without a doubt, years ahead of the competition.
But its talent and culture are beginning to spread out and influence the rest of the industry. Whereas space startups used to stock up on former NASA engineers, these days many of the up-and-comers, Relativity included, are also staffed by SpaceX alumni.
And they’re all hungry to try new things. From 3D printed rockets to air-launched rockets, there’s energy and creativity to spare at the moment.