In the last few years, there has been excitement for the new race to the moon. But as deadlines for rocket launches and crewed missions get closer, space companies begin aligning their projects with their overarching business strategy. May has been a particularly busy month in space news. With the monumental launch of NASA‘s SpaceX Crew Dragon commercial test flight mission carrying astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS); a first orbital launch attempt by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, and a handful of startups test-firing rocket engines for future launch missions, it appears that the aerospace industry is taking advantage of the space momentum. With plans to send the next man and first woman to the Moon in 2024, the anticipation of witnessing astronauts walk on the Moon’s surface for the first time since 1972, is too difficult to handle for many. And space companies are beginning to notice.
One of them is Relativity Space (Relativity). The California-based startup that is pushing the limits of additive manufacturing as it attempts to 3D print entire orbital-class rockets, has been super busy this month. Just last week news broke out that one of SpaceX’s key employees was leaving Southern California’s top rocket firm for Relativity. Meanwhile, the company is pushing toward the inaugural flight of its Terran 1 rocket, expected to launch by the end of 2021, and if that wasn’t enough, Relativity also plans to automate as much of the rocket assembly and test process as possible at its new site in Long Beach, California.
The senior vice president of production and launch official at SpaceX, Zachary Dunn, will become vice president of factory development at Relativity, where he will be in charge of overseeing the development of the company’s new 3D printing site, announced last February. Ars Technica first broke the news that Dunn would lead Relativity’s newly created Factory Development team, with an initial focus to deliver 3D printed rocket Terran 1 to its first orbital launch and then develop the technology needed to scale Terran 1 production.
The co-founder of Relativity, Tim Ellis, expressed in a personal LinkedIn post: “Excited to welcome Zachary Dunn to the Relativity Space team where he will lead a new team as VP of Factory Development. Relativity is an application-layer 3D printing company focused on delivering our first product to orbit: Terran 1. In creating an entirely new value chain for aerospace products, Zach will lead the development of our unique factory approach. Ultimately this approach will be needed on Mars, and we need to inspire dozens to hundreds of companies to get humanity to Mars at scale. Zach joins David Giger, leading Launch Vehicle Development for Terran 1, and Brandon Pearce, leading Avionics and Integrated Software to round out our engineering team on our three core focus areas […].”
Relativity already has a handful of other SpaceX veterans on staff, including co-founder Jordan Noone; engineer Tim Buzza, and David Giger, who joined relativity at around the same time as Buzza to lead the development of the Terran 1 booster.
Originally as a summer intern, Dunn spent 13 years at SpaceX, going on to become senior vice president of production and launch.
Without showing any hard feelings about the switch, SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk tweeted “Zach made a significant contribution to SpaceX and is a friend. I wish him well as he tries something new.”
With so much anticipation as to how 2021 will play out for many rocket manufacturers, Relativity is not wasting any time. It is currently testing Terran 1’s rocket motor at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the company plans to establish a production line in a leased building, as it prepares to conduct the first test launch next year. In keeping with the company’s mission, the planned small launch vehicle will be built in only 60 days from raw materials and mostly by 3D printing the structure, payload fairing as well as the engines.
Last year 3DPrint.com informed that Relativity’s Stargate metal 3D printer (one of the largest in the world) had churned out an 11-foot-tall aluminum fuel tank in three weeks, which was expected to be taken to the Stennis Space Center for testing.
Moreover, earlier this month, CNBC’s Michael Sheetz reported that the Los Angeles-based space startup had in fact conducted a series of tests using the 3D printed tank. Ellis explained that even though “the tank was a fifth the size of the one that will be used for Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, it was structurally representative of the pressures and stress that it would undergo during a launch.” Apparently, this test was enough to verify that Relativity’s 3D printing approach to building rockets works. Ellis revealed that during the test, the tank was increasingly pressurized until it burst at about “10% more than the requirements with the safety factor” needed for a launch.
As the company moves closer to its launch date, key milestones like this are crucial to substantiate the startup’s manufacturing processes. Especially considering that Relativity has already signed a launch services agreement to put payloads on the Terran 1 rocket with Seattle-based firm Spaceflight, a leading satellite rideshare and mission management provider. With an agreement covering the purchase of the first launch, and also options for additional rideshare launches in the future, the company is getting ready for the upcoming commercial human spaceflight markets and other demands in low Earth orbit.
Even though there have been no details about the launch deals and prices, including the newly announced agreement with Spaceflight, the company said in 2018 that it had more than 1 billion dollars worth of tentative commitments for launches from commercial and government entities. Adding to that, the company also recently closed a 140 million dollar funding round led by Bond and Tribe Capital, which is enough to carry the company’s 3D printed small satellite launcher through its first orbital flight.
For now, the company has been busy 3D printing entire rockets that will deploy and resupply satellite constellations to connect and improve life on Earth. However, Relativity’s long-term goal is to manufacture one-of-a-kind rockets using 3D printing that could take humans to space. They even talk about 3D printing the first rocket made from materials found on Mars. Although that seems decades away from happening, the market potential in space travel and tourism has most companies in the space industry refocusing on consumer markets as we begin to witness an intense race to get to space.
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