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A 7-foot wide, 14-foot tall 3D-printed metal fuel tank. [Image: Kaleb Marshall for Bloomberg Businessweek]

Launching a rocket is not cheap; right now, the cost is about $100 million. Within four years, Relativity Space wants to bring that price down to $10 million. How are they going to do that? By removing humans from the picture and letting a machine do all the work – in particular, a giant 3D printer.

Founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone aren’t the first people to think of 3D printing a rocket. Rockets with 3D printed parts have already been launched, and NASA has famously been building an entirely 3D printed rocket engine in order to test the potential for 3D printing rocket components. But Relativity Space wants to 3D print the whole thing, with humans barely involved in the process.

There’s a reason that fully 3D printed rockets aren’t already the norm. 3D printing, although it has plenty of benefits, still has its drawbacks, including cost and speed. So Relativity Space decided to do things a little differently, building its own 3D printer that is now among the largest in the world. Roughly the size of a small house, the printer, called Stargate, contains 18-foot-tall robotic arms with lasers that can melt metal wire. They are capable of streaming about eight inches’ worth of metal per second onto a large turntable. Several of the arms working together can produce the entire body of the rocket in one piece, directed by custom software.

While they haven’t 3D printed a full-sized rocket yet, the printer has made a seven-foot-wide, 14-foot-tall fuel tank in just a few days’ time, and an engine in a week and a half. The 3D printed Aeon 1 engine has already gone through several rounds of testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. According to Relativity Space, its technology will be capable of 3D printing an entire rocket within a month; normally, rockets take several months to build with a full team of people working together. Not only will the rockets be quicker and cheaper, the company says, they will also have far fewer parts – 1,000 as opposed to 100,000 or more.

[Image: Relativity Space]

Relativity Space also makes its own metals, and is working with different alloys to create metals better suited to 3D printing. The unconventional, freeform 3D printing approach the company takes means that Relativity has a lot more design freedom and ability to create large parts in one build than if they were using a more typical powder bed manufacturing method.

Tim Ellis (L) and Jordan Noone [Image: Kaleb Marshall for Bloomberg Businessweek]

CEO Ellis and CTO Noone met at the University of Southern California, where they worked on rockets together in the aerospace club. After graduation, Ellis got a job at Blue Origin, which is also working with 3D printing in its rocket design, and Noone went to work for SpaceX, which is 3D printing rocket components as well. The two kept in touch, however, and ended up forming Relativity Space as a way to make rockets cheaper and faster than ever before.

“We put these spreadsheets together to figure out why rockets were still so expensive,” said Noone. “The fact is that 80 to 90 percent of the cost is labor.”

Both Ellis and Noone are now competing against their former employers – and several other companies – to make reusable, affordable rockets for a commercial market. They believe that their unique 3D printing technology gives them an advantage, though. Relativity Space is a small company, with only 14 full time employees, but it has attracted the attention of prominent investors such as Mark Cuban, Y Combinator and Social Capital, which have invested more than $10 million.

Future goals include 3D printing a 90-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide rocket capable of carrying 2,000 pounds into orbit. The company hopes to have the rocket completed by 2020 and launching by 2021. Like most of the other rocket companies out there, Relativity Space’s intention is to carry commercial satellites into space at reduced cost – but the company has much larger goals for the future as well. Relativity Space wants to continue to adapt its 3D printers so that they are durable enough to print buildings on Mars one day, once humans colonize the planet.

[Image: Relativity Space]

“If you think that type of future is inevitable, then we will need lightweight, intelligent, and automated manufacturing to build stuff on another planet,” said Ellis. “Our long-term mission is to print the first rocket on Mars.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Sources: Bloomberg BusinessweekGeekWire]

 

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