For Full Story: Florida Today
Article By: James Dean
A startup developer of low-cost, 3D-printed rockets that could one day be made on Mars aims to join Cape Canaveral’s launch fleet at soon as late 2020.
Los Angeles-based Relativity Space has won approval from the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing to fly its 100-foot-tall Terran 1 rocket from Launch Complex 16, the company announced Thursday.
Initial missions will deploy and replenish constellations of small satellites, but the three-year-old company founded by young former Blue Origin and SpaceX engineers has longer-term ambitions to support colonies living off of the Earth.
“Fundamentally, we’re creating the first autonomous platform to build the future of humanity in space,” Tim Ellis, the company’s 28-year-old co-founder and CEO, told FLORIDA TODAY. “We’re very excited to be joining the Space Coast.”
Relativity hopes to sign a 20-year agreement granting it exclusive use of Launch Complex 16, a former Titan and Pershing missile site also used by NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. It was deactivated in 1988.
The company plans to spend more than $10 million to renovate the pad, build payload processing and integration hangars and install fuel and lightning protection systems.
It’s not yet known how many jobs will be based in Florida. The company has grown from 14 to 60 people over the past year, adding experience with a dozen former senior executives of existing Cape launchers SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance.
Relativity’s Space Coast commitment follows competitor Rocket Lab’s decision to establish a U.S. launch site at Wallops Island, Virginia, citing concerns about busy launch traffic on the Eastern Range.
Ellis said new technologies like automated self-destruct systems for rockets, plus regulatory improvements now in the works, should allow many more rockets to launch from Florida with fewer range conflicts or disruptions to air space.
That helped make the Cape the company’s clear top choice.
“It’s where our customers are used to launching, it’s where we feel the most elite private space companies are launching and going to continue launching,” he said. “So we’re just very honored to join the Cape and Space Coast, because of the credibility that it brings with it, and all of the existing infrastructure and talent base, too.”
Another potential competitor aiming to launch small satellites, Firefly Aerospace, is expected to confirm plans to fly from Cape Canaveral, at Launch Complex 20.
A relatively low-key startup until now, Relativity has raised $45 million from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. It has not disclosed customers, but says it has letters of interest worth $1 billion in business.
Before choosing a launch site, Relativity arranged to test its methane-fueled Aeon engines — nine of which will power the Terran 1’s first stage along with one powering the upper stage — at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Ellis, who testified before the U.S. Senate’s space subcommittee in 2017, is the youngest member of an industry group advising the National Space Council led by Vice President Mike Pence.
Relativity’s rockets are on the larger side of a crowded field being developed to launch smaller satellites. The Terran 1 can deliver about 2,800 pounds to low Earth orbit, or roughly the equivalent of a Fiat 500 car, for a price of $10 million.
That capability, combined with Relativity’s goal to revolutionize the way rockets are designed and built with automation and 3D printing, set the company apart, Ellis said.
Relativity has invented what Ellis said is the largest metal 3D printer in the world, called Stargate. The technology promises to build rockets with 100 times fewer parts and to reduce manufacturing time by months — eventually to within 60 days.
While SpaceX works to establish a human settlement on Mars, Ellis said Relativity’s “ultimate vision” is to be the first company to 3D-print a rocket on the Red Planet.
Colonists there will want to send goods back to Earth, and before that will need a company to make spare parts, housing and transportation infrastructure.
“That’s really where we see automation and 3D printing going together with rockets in the future, is that we will be able to be that company,” said Ellis.
Ellis, who planned to study screenwriting at the University of Southern California before pursuing aerospace engineering instead, said he enjoys engineering’s blend of creativity and physics and having a “tenacious approach” to a business plan.
Relativity’s plan seeks to ensure that “what we’re doing is a stretch and leads to something greater than what we’re doing today, but that it also will actually happen in reality,” he said. “It’s not just dreaming.”