Can a robotic 3-D printer spit out all the parts of a rocket without humans stepping in until the end? Relativity Space says that’s what it’s working toward.
The company, which has its roots in the Seattle area and is now headquartered in Los Angeles, stepped out of the shadows today with a website that shows off its technology.
Two of its founders, CEO Tim Ellis and chief technology officer Jordan Noone, are veterans of Blue Origin, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture. (Noone went on from an internship to work at SpaceX.)
Ellis provided hints of what Relativity Space was up to during a congressional hearing in July, but the updated website lays out the plan in much more detail. An on-the-scene report from Bloomberg News provides additional color.
Relativity’s aim is to reduce the cost of launch vehicles dramatically by streamlining the manufacturing process. It says its fully 3-D printed rockets will have only 1,000 parts, compared to the 100,000 or more moving parts that a traditional rocket contains.
To make that possible, the 14-employee company has created a building-sized 3-D printer called Stargate. Unlike your typical 3-D printer, Stargate works with molten metal that’s heated up by lasers.
So far, Relativity has used the machine to fabricate its Aeon 1 rocket engine as well as a 14-foot-tall fuel tank. The methane-fueled Aeon 1 has already gone through rounds of testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi — a development that Ellis referenced during July’s hearing.
The company says it aims to build a totally autonomous factory that can turn out a complete 90-foot-tall Terran rocket in a month or two, and can be retooled for an updated 3-D printed design over roughly the same timeline.
The founders told Bloomberg that they’re aiming for first flight by 2021, with a version that should be able to put 2,000 pounds of payload into orbit. Anticipated price is $10 million, compared with the $62 million published price tag for a SpaceX Falcon launch.
Relativity Space also hints that future Stargates could someday be building rockets beyond Earth. “Our technology builds toward our long-term goal of 3-D printing the first rocket made from Mars,” the company says on its website.
All this may sound like 3-D printed pie in the sky, but there’s real money behind the dream. Relativity Space says it’s taken in more than $10 million in private investment so far, from the likes of billionaire Mark Cuban, Y Combinator and Social Capital.
Nowadays, most rocket companies use 3-D printing in their manufacturing processes. L.A.-based Rocket Lab, for example, takes advantage of the technology to make the primary components for the kerosene-fueled Rutherford engine on its low-cost Electron rocket. Cost of an Electron launch? $5 million.
The kind of rocket reusability that SpaceX and Blue Origin are working toward could also affect the financial equations for spacecraft manufacturing. Both those companies say it’ll be far cheaper to refly a robust rocket than to build lots of mass-produced rockets.
Last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the marginal cost per launch for his yet-to-be-built BFR rocket will be cheaper than the cost of any non-reusable rocket.
Can Relativity Space find a winning equation in an increasingly crowded and quickly shifting launch marketplace? If so, then maybe Mars isn’t too far a frontier.