AMS Spring 2023

Relativity Space’s Gets 150 Acre Expansion at NASA Stennis for 3D Printed Aeon R Engines

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A new 150-acre expansion at Relativity Space‘s facilities in NASA Stennis Space Center could give the rocket manufacturer a momentous opportunity to disrupt a multi-billion dollar private space industry. With construction already underway, the additional land will be dedicated to testing the brand’s entirely 3D printed Aeon R rocket engines set to power its fully reusable and 3D printed Terran R medium-lift launch vehicle. Once deployable, Terran R will rely on Relativity’s proprietary 3D printing technology and raw materials to create it with 100 times fewer features in less than 60 days, breaking with aerospace’s decades-old rocket-building tradition.

While the company is keeping momentum towards the demo launch of Terran 1 from Launch Complex 16 (LC-16) in Cape Canaveral in 2022, it is also rapidly iterating on Terran R and its Aeon R engines with powder bed fusion technology. Terran R will be outfitted with seven 3D printed Aeon R rocket engines capable of 302,000 lb. thrust each, while its upper stage houses one Aeon 1 Vac engine. Terran R also represents a giant leap toward Relativity’s mission to build humanity’s multi-planetary future, eventually offering customers a point-to-point space freighter capable of missions between Earth, the Moon, and Mars.

Now, through an agreement with NASA, Relativity is significantly expanding its facilities and infrastructure at NASA’s historic Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, the agency’s largest rocket testing site. The new location will use over 150 additional acres within the Stennis Test Complex, with testing infrastructure for its Aeon R engines built from the ground up on previously unutilized land north of the A and E Test Complexes. For the task, Relativity has been awarded a $15 million grant from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) to contribute to it’s growing presence and job creation at Stennis.

Relativity says it has begun ground-clearing work for several new engine test stands, a full-scale second-stage stand, office buildings, and a vehicle hangar. Furthermore, the company is already underway testing Aeon R components across Relativity’s E2 test complex, with plans to build the first Aeon R engine and turbopump assembly and begin thrust chamber assembly tests for its Aeon R engines in the coming months at a leased E1 test cell at Stennis’ E1 Test Facility which is available for developmental testing projects requiring high flow rate and ultra-high pressure up to 8500 psi at the test article interface. Full Aeon R engine tests are tracked to occur in late 2023 at Relativity’s newly announced facility expansion.

Relativity Space’s factory building at NASA Stennis Space Center houses one of its Stargate factories. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

Relativity currently occupies several operational facilities at Stennis, which include four exclusive-use test stands in the E4 area used for Terran 1 stage testing and Aeon 1 engine testing, two exclusive-use stands in the E2 area used for Aeon 1 engine and Aeon R component tests, and one cell on the E1 test stand available through a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement for Aeon R engine tests. Additionally, Relativity has expanded into several buildings that house its rapidly growing team and test control operations.

Self-described as both a 3D printing and space company, Relativity is preparing to get closer to launching its first rocket. The team has already completed the Mission Duty Cycle (MDC) test for Stage 2 of Terran 1 at NASA’s Stennis Center, as well as full acceptance testing (ATP) of its Aeon-1 engines for Stage 1. These crucial steps are part of comprehensive testing that is being carried out at Relativity’s facilities in Stennis, which so far have enabled more than 2,000 engine tests, multiple successful mission duty cycles, and a fully-integrated stage testing of a 3D printed orbital flight article – which is not only a first for Relativity but the entire aerospace manufacturing industry.

Behind-the-scenes photos of Relativity Space's world-class team at NASA Stennis Space Center working on the 3D printed Aeon Vac engine. Behind-the-scenes photos of Relativity Space’s world-class team at NASA Stennis Space Center working on the 3D printed Aeon Vac engine. Image courtesy of Relativity Space via LinkedIn.

Back in 2013, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visited Stennis and commented that the historical site “continues to demonstrate that the road to space goes through Mississippi.” At that time, Relativity Space was just a concept being juggled around by young aerospace engineers Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone, who were working at Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively, and believed that someday fully 3D printed rockets could be a thing.

Stennis has always contributed to the new era of exploration through its commercial partnerships and ongoing essential work to test new propulsion technologies, Bolden remarked. Today, this history is more alive than ever.

“The access to infrastructure in Mississippi is unparalleled,” suggests Relativity Space Vice President of Test and Launch, Don Kaderbek. “I look forward to working with NASA as the historic Stennis Space Center continues to evolve to support commercial space test programs and to attract and hire top talent as we build the future of aerospace manufacturing. We know the history of excellence at Stennis and take great pride in being able to repurpose existing infrastructure that has withstood the test of time. But we will also build brand new test stands in a place so central and vital to American aerospace innovation.”

U.S. senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) also remarked that Mississippi is ripe to become an aerospace hub and look forward to innovations that could arise from this expansion and partnership as well as from the talent it will attract.

News of the upcoming facility is being announced a year after Relativity Space raised $650 million from investors to step up its production of the Terran R rocket, a round led by Fidelity Investments, which also included BlackRock and Soroban Capital as new investors. Around that time, the company also revealed plans to build a second rocket factory in Long Beach, California, a one-million-square-foot facility on the former and long-vacant Boeing C-17 location. There Relativity has already begun to produce its proprietary 3D printed rocket components, and once all full manufacturing capabilities are in place, the space firm will move its focus work around Terran R, which is expected to launch as early as 2024.

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