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Can Relativity Space become the next SpaceX?

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Relativity Space is gearing up for its first 3D printed rocket launch later this year. If successful, the young company could turn the aerospace industry upside down, just like SpaceX a few years ago.

Two ambitious engineers

While still a teenager, Tim Ellis, the company’s co-founder, spends time playing with LEGOs for several hours a day, designing his own spaceships. Moreover, one of his thumbs is now bent back because of this obsession.

This mix of creativity and a desire to build things eventually led him to the University of Southern California. in 2008 where he specialized in aerospace engineering. He then became involved in the university’s Rocket Propulsion Lab, a group of students who built rockets as amateurs, and befriended another aerospace engineer, Jordan Noone. Together, they go through internships before finding themselves at two competing companies: Ellis at Blue Origin and Noone at SpaceX.

Both are then only at the beginning of their careers… However, perhaps because they are still very young (not yet 25 years old), they have the impression that things are not going fast enough, focusing in particular on the untapped potential of emerging 3D printing technologies. By printing a rocket, you could indeed significantly reduce the traditional supply chain and require up to a hundred times fewer parts. With enough printers, a rocket could even be “built” in a matter of days.

Ellis and Noone finally quit their job at the end of 2015, then founded Relativity Space. A few weeks later, the investor Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, signed them a check for 500,000 dollars, perceiving in two young engineers a rare potential.

Tim Ellis, Founder and CEO of Relativity Space. Credit: Jason Connoly

Then everything is linked

Very quickly, Ellis and Noone joined the Y Combinator, a prestigious program offering investment opportunities to start-ups. The two engineers then define a company capable of 3D printing its rockets and develop the first prototype of their printer named “Stargate”. Three months later, they present their ideas to certain investors in Silicon Valley… Then then raise ten million dollars in Series A financing.

A little later, in January 2019, they surrounded themselves with David Giger, who had just spent nearly thirteen years at SpaceX. For the latter, reusable launchers have certainly been the great advance of the last decade, but 3D printing remains the technology of the future.

As soon as he arrives, Giger matures the Terran 1 rocket of the company and supervises the tests of its engine called Aeon 1. It resizes the launcher so that it can deliver more payloads in low orbit, expanding the fairing diameter to three meters and its height to seven meters. It’s not very impressive compared to other launchers, but it’s more than enough. A larger fairing would indeed have required a more powerful engine.

Choice facilities

A few months ago, Relativity Space also “arranged” with NASA to have several production centers at the American agency’s Stennis Space Center (Mississippi). At this precise moment, the two engineers are still in their twenties and their company is not yet five years old. This therefore testifies to the enormous confidence of NASA and the American government, which is obviously not fooled.

Engineers realize that if they can print something as complex as a rocket, then the technique could be widely applied to other industries, which would be a real boon for the American economy.

relativity space
Relativity Space is testing a component of its Aeon engine in December on the E-2 test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Credit: Relativity Space

A first launch this year

For now, everything suggests that this is a real Success. A report CNBC in November estimated the market value of Relativity (which just raised a new $ 500 million) at $ 2.3 billion, among the highest in the private space industry. For comparison, the leader, SpaceX, was worth around $ 44 billion Last year.

However, the most difficult questions still remain to be resolved. Can a 3D printed rocket really fly? Can his engine run? Can the tanks, plumbing and the nine motors be assembled into a complete first stage? We won’t know until the Terran 1 rocket is sent into space. Luckily: Relativity is planning a launch this fall.


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