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An artist’s conception shows Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 16. (Relativity Space Illustration)

Relativity Space, the California-based rocket startup that got its start in Seattle, has won Air Force clearance to build its Florida launch facility on a site that saw service during NASA’s Apollo and Gemini programs in the 1960s.

The agreement gives Relativity Space exclusive use of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 16 — which was first used for Titan missile launches, and then for Gemini crew processing and static firing tests of the Apollo service module’s propulsion engine under NASA’s supervision.

After Apollo, the site was returned to the Air Force and used for test-firing Pershing ballistic missiles. Launch Complex 16 has been largely dormant since the Pershing program was deactivated in 1988 to comply with the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Veteran aerospace executive Tim Buzza, an adviser who came to Relativity Space after working for SpaceX and Virgin Orbit, said there’s little left today that existed during the launch complex’s glory days — only a round blockhouse, a covered walkway and a ramp to the launch platform.

“There isn’t anything historical that’s been brought up to us,” Buzza told GeekWire.

The roughly 18-acre site is thus a blank slate that Relativity plans to improve. It’ll add an integration hangar, an engineering and support building, a payload processing facility, propellant storage tanks and everything else that’s needed to start launching the company’s 3-D-printed Terran 1 rockets by the end of next year.

Launch Complex 16
This artwork shows Relativity Space’s vision for Launch Complex 16. (Relativity Space Illustration)
Launch Complex 16
Relativity Space has big construction plans for Launch Complex 16. (Relativity Space Illustration)

Relativity’s five-year agreement, with an option to extend to 20 years, puts the four-year-old venture in elite company: Only SpaceX (Launch Complex 40), Blue Origin (LC-36) and United Launch Alliance (LC-37 and LC-41) have similar arrangements for a major operational orbital launch site on the Air Force’s prime East Coast launch grounds.

The company was founded in Seattle in 2015 by CEO Tim Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer; and chief technology officer Jordan Noone, a former SpaceX engineer. It quickly relocated to Los Angeles. Over the past nine months, the venture has grown from a team of 14 to about 60 employees, including a dozen senior leaders from the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit and Tesla.

That growth has been fueled by more than $45 million in investment, with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, Playground Global, Y Combinator and Social Capital among Relativity’s leading backers.

The L.A. headquarters is home to a huge 3-D printer, nicknamed Stargate, that can produce metal parts for Relativity’s Aeon 1 rocket engine and Terran 1 rocket.

Last year, the company reached an agreement with NASA to use an engine test complex at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Buzza said Relativity has been at work on the site, but the partial government shutdown is having an impact.

“Unfortunately, some of the interaction that we’ve been having has come to a halt,” he said.

Relativity’s plan calls for hardware to be built in Los Angeles, tested at Stennis and launched from Cape Canaveral. The methane-fueled, two-stage Terran 1 is designed to loft up to 1,250 kilograms (2,750 pounds) of payload into low Earth orbit, at an estimated cost of $10 million.

The company says it has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tentative launch commitments but hasn’t yet identified those potential customers. Buzza said the development schedule is still on track to execute the first test launch by the end of 2020, with three commercial launches on the manifest for 2021.

Buzza and his Relativity teammates wanted to get the Cape Canaveral deal done first, but they’re also working on securing a launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for missions that call for polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

“We’re probably two to four months away from being at this stage on the Western Range,” Buzza said.

Correction for 11:23 a.m. PT Jan 17: We’ve rephrased the references to Relativity Space’s agreement to avoid characterizing it as a lease, which is not quite right.

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