Relativity sets sights on major test
One of the company’s Aeon I engines will be coupled with a 3D-printed
second stage rocket for a major test in the quest to expand the human
Relativity Space hopes to conduct one of the last major tests for the rockets it is
building at Stennis Space Center before the end of the year, a major step toward the
company’s plans to construct rockets using a 3D printer.
The plan is to attach one of Relativity’s Aeon 1 engines, which are also being tested
at Stennis, to a 3D printed second stage rocket, said David Geiger, vice president of
launch vehicle development for Relativity.
“Running this as an integrated system is one of our last major check-outs,” he said.
“This is the pinnacle and part of the process to validate all of the engines we build.”
The technologies developed through Relativity’s Stennis factory site are the first
step toward the company’s long term vision of 3D printing the first rocket made in
Mars and expanding the human experience in space.
“We believe this groundbreaking technology is the future of aerospace
manufacturing,” said Jordan Noone, CTO and co-founder of Relativity.
Relativity, based in Long Beach, California, is a 5-year-old private aerospace
manufacturer founded by Tim Ellis and Noone. Both men were working for other
private companies and wanted to harness the potential of 3D printing to speed up
the process of making rockets. The company has had a presence at Stennis since
March 2018, when it signed a 20-year lease with NASA to test engine components
and the full-scale Aeon 1.
In June 2019, Relativity announced it would build and test its Terran 1 rockets at
Stennis, a move that will eventually create 200 jobs and be a $59 million investment.
The agreement with NASA includes exclusive use of 220,000 square feet within
building 9101 at Stennis Space Center for a nine-year lease. The facility includes an
80-foot high bay, multiple bridge cranes, and extensive industrial infrastructure.
Terran 1 is an expendable, two-stage launch vehicle. The first stage will use nine
Aeon 1 engines, while the second stage will use a single, restartable Aeon 1 engine.
Relativity is building the rockets using patented 3D printing technology, the Stargate
system, which it calls the world's largest 3D printer of metals. It’s based on selective
laser sintering, which uses laser beams to bond powdered metal, layer by layer. The
company aims to 3D print at least 95 percent of its launchers, including the engines.
The 3D printing process allows Relativity to build a rocket in 60 days, as opposed to
the 2 or 3 years it would take from traditional methods. A Relativity rocket has fewer
than 1,000 parts, compared to the standard rocket which has more than 100,000.
This means the company will be able to make changes for customers “fairly rapidly”,
“We’re not going to be able to do this at the time of our first launch, but we are
working on enabling us to get to that point,” he said. “We’re also not going to need to
carry as much inventory.”
While the method hasn’t been perfected enough yet to allow for rapid changes, the
3D printing has come in handy during the coronavirus pandemic. “We can print with
one person there,” Giger said. “In California during the pandemic we were able to
remotely monitor the printing in Mississippi with just one person. It’s a testament to a
new way of manufacturing as a whole.”
Along with the facilities in Long Beach and Stennis, Relativity has an office and
factory in Los Angeles and a launch complex at Cape Canaveral, Florida. In Florida,
the company is operating out of a historic location built in the 1950s and site of
hundreds of American space launches. Relativity got the Cape Canaveral facility in
January 2019 after it won competitive bidding process with the United States Air
The decentralized approach and reliance on autonomous manufacturing meant that
Relativity was largely able to keep operating during the pandemic and not have its
progress delayed too much.
Investors come onboard
Over the past four years, Relativity has been able to raise $185 million from
investors such as Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dtallas Mavericks and a
regular on the television series “Shark Tank.” This allowed the company to hire
aerospace veterans like Giger, who spent 13 years with Elon Musk’s SpaceX as
program manager for the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Relativity continued to hire staffers during the pandemic, conducting virtual
interviews. In the past three months, Giger said the company was able to hire close
to 20 people to work in California and Mississippi. So far, the company has boosted
its employment at Stennis from 14 to 90 workers.
Relativity has been testing the rockets at Stennis since December and now
operates one-third of the test stands at the space center. The work at Stennis is
Relativity has boosted the thrust capabilities of its engines from 17,500 pounds to
23,000 pounds, meaning that it will be able to carry larger payloads. “We’ve got one
of the best in class volume to cost ratios to get a payload into orbit,” Giger said.
This boost in thrust class has caused Relativity to slightly delay the launch of its first
rocket. It was scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, later this year. Now a 2021
launch date is being projected. Relativity plans to start commercial launch service by
Relativity is working with commercial customers and government agencies. Once
the company is consistently launching rockets, Giger said it will help capture market
“We would like to see us fully realize an autonomous factory that can produce a
rocket in 60 days,” Giger said. The printers at Stennis are capable of printing even
larger structures, which will enable Relativity to increase the sizes of rocket
components, offering greater flexibility to commercial and government entities
needing faster, more frequent, and lower cost access to space.
Along with the potential to open up space exploration and transport to more people,
he sees spinoff potential in Relativity’s 3D printing capabilities.
“We can produce other complex structures beside rockets,” he said. “We’re going to
look more at that after the first flight.”
- Timothy Boone