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Stargate 3-D printer
An illustration shows how Relativity Space’s Stargate metal 3-D printer compares with the height of a human. (Relativity Space Illustration)

Just a week after unveiling an agreement to use one of NASA’s rocket test complexes in Mississippi, Relativity Space is announcing $35 million in new funding that’ll help the rocket-building startup take advantage of the deal.

The Series B financing round is led by Playground Global, with full participation from Relativity’s existing investors, Social Capital, Y Combinator and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban. The money brings total investment in the three-year-old company to more than $45 million.

“It’ll make us able to grow the team from 17 employees to over 45 by the end of this year,” Relativity CEO and co-founder Tim Ellis told GeekWire.

In connection with the round, Jory Bell, an investment partner at Playground Global, will be taking a seat on Relativity’s board. “We are excited to be a part of a company that is taking a radical approach, and we believe Relativity brings significant value to the aerospace ecosystem,” Bell said in a news release.

The funding will support further development of the Los Angeles-based company’s Aeon 1 rocket engine, its two-stage Terran rocket, and the metal 3-D printing system that makes it all possible.

Relativity plans to run a full-scale, hold-down test of the rocket’s integrated upper stage by the end of the year. That’s also the time frame for selecting a launch site that would be used for commercial liftoffs starting in 2021.

Relativity already has completed more than 100 test fires of the Aeon 1 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. That’s where the company will be operating a 25-acre test complex, with an option for further expansion. The 20-year NASA deal gives Relativity the go-ahead to develop, qualify and test up to 36 rockets per year.

Relativity is designing the Terran rocket to launch into a range of orbits, and send up to 2,750 pounds (1,250 kilograms) of payload into low Earth orbit at a cost of $10 million. That size of payload is larger than what’s being targeted by other market entrants, such as Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab and Vector Launch.

“We think that’s a huge differentiator,” Ellis said. “It really goes beyond just CubeSats.”

Advance sales are reportedly proceeding apace: The company says it has more than $1 billion worth of tentative commitments for launches from commercial and government entities around the world, in the form of memorandums of understanding and letters of intent.

The key to Relativity’s business model is extreme automation. Even before the company emerged from stealth mode, it promised to build rockets “with zero human labor.” Relativity no longer goes quite that far, but it does say up to 95 percent of its rocket components will eventually be 3-D printed.

Relativity says its 18-foot-tall Stargate machine is the world’s largest metal 3-D printer, but that title may not last for long. “There is a Stargate 2, which is what the funding is helping fund,” Ellis said.

Ellis and Relativity’s other co-founder, chief technology officer Jordan Noone, both have connections to other billionaire-backed space ventures in their background. Noone was an engineer at Elon Musk’s SpaceX, while Ellis worked for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin in Kent, Wash.

When they decided to start their own company in 2015, they chose Seattle as their initial base of operations. “We started in a WeWork in Seattle,” Ellis recalled. “That was the first month we were there.”

But they didn’t stay. Ellis said Noone, a native Californian, couldn’t get used to the winter weather. “That just happened to be the darkest winter on record,” said Ellis, exaggerating only slightly.

Now the two twenty-something rocketeers are firmly ensconced in Los Angeles, and the outlook for Relativity seems as sunny as California’s stereotypical skies. Ellis is already rubbing elbows with executives from SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Lockheed Martin as the space startup representative on the Users Advisory Group for the White House’s National Space Council.

“I’m probably the youngest person, by at least a decade,” Ellis said. “Probably more.”

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