A Terran 1 rocket takes off from the Relativity launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in this artistic rendition.
Relativity Space, a growing startup targeting near-complete 3D printing of rockets, announced Wednesday that it reached another major launch agreement, as well as an agreement with the US Air Force. USA, to build a launch pad on the California coast.
The Los Angeles-based rocket maker signed an agreement with satellite operator Iridium Communications to launch up to six satellites as needed starting in 2023. Over the course of more than half a dozen launches with SpaceX, Iridium completed its constellation of Second generation satellites in January 2019, with 66 operational satellites and 9 spare parts in orbit.
The agreement with Iridium means Relativity now has launch agreements for five different companies, having previously announced contracts with Canadian satellite communications operator Telesat, California-based Momentus, Thai satellite broadband company mu Space and Spaceflight Inc. with based in Seattle. All contracts have notably arrived before Relativity’s first release, which is slated to happen before the end of 2021.
“People are really excited to see where 3D printing technology is going,” Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC. “We are going to be able to serve customers in a way that was not possible before.”
Relativity has continued to grow and progress despite the coronavirus pandemic. Ellis said the company now has about 170 employees in total, and that hiring continues during the crisis thanks to the $ 140 million it raised in October. Relativity’s investors include Social Capital, Playground Global, Y Combinator, Bond Capital, Tribe Capital, Jared Leto and Mark Cuban.
A time lapse of Relativity’s Stargate 3D printer building a rocket fuel tank.
Relativity space | gif by @thesheetztweetz
For Iridium, the deal represents a cost-saving option for each time it needs to replenish its satellite constellation. Ellis explained that Relativity “would launch each at once” on his Terran 1 rocket. Still in development, approximately 95% of the parts for Terran 1 are 3D printed. Relativity says it has 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets, and therefore a simpler supply chain that can turn raw material into a rocket on the launch pad in less than 60 days.
Relativity’s Terran 1 meets our launch needs for [low Earth orbit] “From a price, responsiveness and capacity point of view,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement. “The enhanced Iridium satellite constellation is working incredibly well, but it is wise to have a cost-effective launch option available for future replacement deliveries.”
A California launch pad
Relativity also announced that it has an agreement with the military for a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company plans to build a new launch facility called B-330 at a site south of the existing SLC-6 at the base. Relativity will finance construction of the site, with Ellis saying he expects it will cost more than $ 10 million to build.
Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) on the California coast.
Iridium acts as the “anchor client” for Relativity to build the launch pad, as the Vandenberg location allows access to the orbits in which the satellite company operates. But Ellis said Relativity has sparked the interest of more clients to launch from the west coast.
“Vandenberg is going to be used quite a bit,” Ellis said.
Ellis added that the launch from Vandenberg “has been in progress for some time,” and the Air Force, for its part, welcomed Relativity.
“We are impressed by Relativity’s innovative approach to reinventing aerospace manufacturing through 3D metal printing and robotics alongside an executive team of experienced aerospace leaders. We look forward to working with Relativity as its launch partner on the West Coast during many years, “30th Space Wing Commander Col. Anthony J. Mastalir said in a statement.
An artist’s rendering of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket on the launch pad on Cape Canaveral’s LC-16 in Florida.
The company still plans to launch its first missions from Cape Canaveral in Florida, so adding Vandenberg to its portfolio allows “access to all the major orbits that almost any customer wants to launch,” Ellis said. Relativity has already started on LC-16 in Florida and is currently undergoing demolition and construction to prepare the launch pad.
Preparing for the first launch
Relativity continues to build its Long Beach factory, which Ellis said should be done by the end of the year. That will include two new 3D printers, needed to build the largest parts of Terran 1. Before the end of the year, Ellis said Relativity would produce full rocket stages and begin testing on second-stage structures, the upper physical third plus or less than the rocket. In a few months, Relativity also plans to begin “fully integrated engine testing” of its most powerful rocket engine, Ellis said.
The company continues to hire, and Ellis says Relativity has hired new employees even since the pandemic began. That includes hiring Relativity’s first chief financial officer: Muhammad Shahzad, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs and, most recently, chief financial officer for The Honest Company, a Los Angeles-based consumer goods specialist. Relativity also hooked Zach Dunn as the company’s senior vice president of factory development: Dunn spent nearly 13 years at SpaceX, becoming senior vice president of launch and production for the Elon Musk rocket company.
“We have an incredibly experienced team,” said Ellis. “I think this technology will be among the most disruptive of our lives in this industry and then in the aerospace sector in general, in addition to reusable rockets. No one has fundamentally changed manufacturing for 60 years.”
Relativity co-founders Tim Ellis (left) and Jordan Noone stand next to a 3D-printed second leg of the company’s Terran 1 rocket.
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