The New Space Race; SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Relativity

Since June 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 127 times, with 125 full mission successes, one partial failure and one total loss of spacecraft.

In addition, one rocket and its payload were destroyed on the launch pad during the fueling process before a static fire test.

SpaceX is progressing to the first orbital fligth of Super Heavy Starship this month or next. This will increase payloads to 100-150 tons reusable and 150-250 tons of expendable launch. The lower numbers are the initial metrics and the higher numbers are aspirational for a mature system.

Rocket Lab completed a SPAC merger which values Rocket Lab at US$4.1 billion and provided US$790 million in working capital in order to begin development of a new medium-lift two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle called Neutron, aiming for the mega-constellation satellite deployment market.

Electron is a two-stage, partially recoverable orbital launch vehicle developed by Rocket Lab. The Electron has flown 21 times since May 2017, with a total of 18 successes and 3 failures.

In December 2016, Electron completed flight qualification. The first rocket was launched on 25 May 2017, reaching space but not achieving orbit due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground, due to it still being a test flight called “It’s a Test”. During its second flight on 21 January 2018, Electron reached orbit and deployed three CubeSats, in a mission called “Still Testing”. The first commercial launch of Electron, and the third launch overall, occurred on 11 November 2018, in a mission called “It’s Business Time”.

The Rocket Lab Neutron rocket is expected to be 40 m (130 ft) tall with a 4.5 m (15 ft)-diameter fairing. Rocket Lab have said they are going to aim to make the first stage of the vehicle reusable with landings planned on a floating landing platform downrange in the ocean. Neutron launches are intended to take place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the eastern coast of Virginia, by modifying the existing launch pad infrastructure at Launch Pad 0A (LP-0A). The company is evaluating locations across the United States to build a factory to manufacture the new rocket. As of March 2021, the company is planning for the first launch no earlier than 2024.

Relativity Space is aiming to be the first company to successfully launch a fully 3D-printed launch vehicle into orbit. In November 2020, Relativity Space had US$500 million Series D funding with US$2.3 billion valuation. In June 2021 Relativity had another US$650 million funding round led by Fidelity Investments with US$4.2 billion, bringing its total funding to US$1.335 billion. The funding will help the development of a fully reusable medium lift launch vehicle, the Terran R, targeting the first orbital launch not earlier than 2024. The company anticipates it will launch its first rocket, named Terran 1, in early 2022.

Terran 1 is an expendable launch vehicle under development that will consist of two stages. As of 2020, the first stage was planned to use nine Aeon 1 engines, while the second stage was being planned to use a single Aeon 1 engine. The maximum payload was expected to be 1,250 kg (2,760 lb) to 185 km (115 mi) low Earth orbit (LEO), normal payload 900 kg (2,000 lb) to 500 km (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), high-altitude payload 700 kg (1,500 lb) to 1,200 km (750 mi) SSO. Relativity’s advertised launch price was US$12 million per Terran 1 mission in June 2020. As of August 2021, Relativity hopes to conduct the first launch of Terran 1 in early 2022.

The Terran R is a fully reusable launch vehicle under development designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The first stage will use seven Aeon R engines, while the second stage will used an upgraded Aeon 1 engine with a copper chamber. With this design, Relativity is aiming to exceed the Falcon 9 payload to low-Earth orbit by approximately 20 percent, with a target payload mass as of June 2021 of approximately 20 tonnes (44,000 lb), with a long term goal to make the first orbital launch as early as 2024.