Lockheed Martin Hires Relativity Space for NASA 3D Printing Project

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Relativity Space has to be among the busiest new space startups out there, signing a number of partnerships as it continues to develop an automated method for 3D printing metal rocket engine structures. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the firm has bagged a SpaceX vice president, tested a rocket fuel tank, and partnered with 6K for the additive production of parts using recycled metal. Now, the LA-based startup has received its first government contract with the largest weapons manufacturer in the world, Lockheed Martin.

The deal has been made as part of NASA’s Tipping Point program, which is doling out $370 million to 14 companies to explore cutting edge space technologies, such as creating a 4G LTE network for the Moon. Lockheed’s project is meant to explore 12 different cryogenic fluid management systems, including liquid hydrogen, on a single craft in orbit. While Lockheed and NASA will design and build the payload and cryogenic systems, Relativity Space has been selected as the launch provider for the mission.

“We’re building a custom payload fairing that has specific payload loading interfaces they need, custom fittings and adapters,” Relativity Space founder and CEO Tim Ellis said. “It still needs to be smooth, of course — to a lay person it will look like a normal rocket.”

As we’ve learned, additive manufacturing (AM) is ideal particularly for high-end, custom, small-batch parts. Nothing could fit these criteria more than a spacecraft. The external portion of the launch vehicle covering the project payload, known as the fairing, will be custom, with a number of designs made specifically for gingerly carrying 12 cryogenic operations into space.

Relativity is using Stargate 3D printers to make big and small parts, like this sub-scale vessel designed for pressure testing (Image: Relativity Space)

We also know that traditional production technologies result in long turn around times. Ellis estimates that, without 3D printing, building the craft would take one to two years. With AM, however, he boasts the ability to 3D print the fairing in less than 30 days.

“With our 3D-printed approach we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days,” Ellis said. “It’s also software defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last-minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise you’d have to lock in the design now.”

Despite the fact that Lockheed is now notorious for the F-35 boondoggle, the military giant continues to garner huge government contracts even for that boondoggle. In turn, Lockheed subcontractors can benefit from the public largesse. Relativity Space has found customers in smaller businesses, like satellite maker Iridium, but having the largest weapons maker as partner immediately raises its status.

Relativity has yet to head to space, however. The startup is in the process of 3D printing the launch hardware to prepare for its first orbital test flight is set for late 2021.

 

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