Relativity Space made history by launching the first 3D printed rocket into space. Here's how the company aims to beat Elon Musk to Mars by 2024.
Relativity Space launched the world's first rocket that's almost entirely 3D printed.
The company developed the world's largest metal 3D printers to make its Terran 1 rocket.
It hopes the launch will put it on track to beat Elon Musk's SpaceX to Mars by 2024.
Relativity Space launched the world's 3D printed rocket on March 22, 2023.
Though the rocket failed to reach orbit, it did pass some important milestones on its maiden voyage.
"It was, at least from my perspective, a stunning success, especially with all the variables that they had," Brendan Rosseau, a teaching fellow of space economy from Harvard Business School who wasn't involved in the launch, told Insider.
"They're turning a lot of heads, they're really exciting," he said.
The 3D printed rocket is the brainchild of Relativity CEO Tim Ellis, a former engineer at Jeff Bezos' space startup, Blue Origin.
Here's how Ellis plans to take on his former boss and Elon Musk's SpaceX by disrupting the rocket-manufacturing industry.
Terran 1 is the world's first 3D printed rocket.
Terran 1 is Relativity Space's first functional rocket model. It's also the world's first 3D printed rocket.
85% of the rocket was printed using huge 3D metal printers. The 20,500-pound rocket stands 110 feet high and 7.5 feet wide.
The rocket uses nine custom-built engines to boost it off of the ground and will be able to carry a payload to a low earth orbit of about 2,800 pounds.
The rocket successfully lifted off on March 22, at around 11:25 p.m. ET. Though it didn't reach orbit, it did pass some important milestones to prove the 3D printed structure is viable for flight. You can watch the launch below:
"It's amazing to see how well it performed given that it was the first test launch," Rosseau, from the Harvard Business School, said.
Terran 1 cleared "key points" to prove the 3D printed structure can work, but failed to reach orbit
The rocket was able to travel far enough that there was no chance of debris falling on the launchpad — passing a technical threshold known as three sigma.
It also survived MaxQ, which is when the pressure on the rocket's structure is at its highest.
Those are two "key moments we're looking to get past on this first flight to definitively prove during flight the printed structures could survive anything we threw at it," Ellis told Insider before the launch.
Still, the rocket, which was not carrying a commercial payload, failed to reach orbit. It successfully separated its first and second stages, but something went wrong shortly after.
"It looks like for the second stage, they couldn't quite get that ignition going, which is always a tricky part," Rosseau said, adding: "That handoff between first and second stage is always challenging when you're trying out a new rocket,"
The upper stage failed to reach orbit, at about three minutes into the flight.
"No one's ever attempted to launch a 3D printed rocket into orbit, and, while we didn't make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D printed rockets is viable," Relativity test program manager Arwa Tizani Kelly said in a live stream of the launch.
"Obviously I think they would've loved to get to orbit," Rosseau said.
The rockets are built by the world's largest 3D metal printers.
In order to print such a big object, the first step for Relativity Space was to design 3D metal printers that could build a whole sections of a rocket.
The printers, called Stargate, need to print the rocket in about 1,000 pieces. The biggest pieces they're printing are about 20 feet tall, said Ellis.
Here's Relativity's third iteration of the printer putting together a stage of the rocket:
"The largest printers that existed when we started the company could only do about a single cubic foot," said Ellis.
"What Relativity had to do was invent the world's largest metal 3D printers."
The pieces are then joined up by a machine "that's very similar to a 3D printer but it ends up, joining those pieces together again without fixed tooling," said Ellis.
The Terran R, which will dwarf Terran 1, is due to be the biggest-ever 3D printed rocket.
Though Terran 1 is Relativity's biggest rocket to date, it's relatively small compared to SpaceX's Starship, for instance. Starship aims to carry 150 metric tons into orbit, then return to Earth to be reused.
But for Ellis, the Terran 1 launch is just a step toward his real goal, to build a much bigger rocket called Terran R.
Terran R is also meant to be reusable and should carry 20,000 kilograms of payload. That's about the same as SpaceX's Falcon 9.
It should also be at least 95% 3D printed.
The company is planning to launch this rocket in 2024. This is the rocket Ellis wants to send to Mars.
Though it's still being developed, Ellis is confident it will be put together quickly. AEON R, the engine that will propel the second stage of the rocket forward, has already been tested, he said.
"That was a blank sheet of paper about a year and a half ago," he said.
"So to go from a blank sheet to build the first full of the engine, which we just completed, and then already doing engine component testing at full scale is quite incredibly fast," he said.
Relativity wants to beat Musk's SpaceX to Mars.
Relativity has teamed up with Impulse Space, founded by former SpaceX propulsion CTO and co-founder Tom Mueller, to set an ambitious timeline for its products: it aims to send TerranR to Mars by 2024.
If it succeeds, Ellis would beat Elon Musk's SpaceX to the red planet, and the mission would be the first-ever commercial mission to Mars.
"2024 is a hyper-aggressive date, there's no question," said Ellis.
"But our pace of execution on TerranR has been quite rapid," he said. "I think that is gonna be key to our ability to execute as fast of a timeline as we can."
Under the agreement with Impulse Space, the payload, a Mars rover, must be delivered by 2029 at the latest, said Ellis.
"I think a big sign that we're committed to this mission and definitely going to make it happen," he said.
Relativity Space wants to be for rockets what Tesla was for electric cars, says Ellis.
Ellis said his eureka moment came while working at Jeff Bezos' space firm, Blue Origin, as an executive.
Looking around the factory floor, he said, he realized that the company was upheaving the rocket business, but one thing hadn't changed much: the assembly line.
"I saw that we had this giant factory full of fixed tooling, building a whole rocket one at a time by hand with hundreds of thousands to millions of individual piece parts," Ellis told Insider.
"That's really why I started the company to 3D print a whole rocket," he said.
Ellis decided he would disrupt the rocket business by putting metal 3D printers at the core of the manufacturing process.
"The way you have to design for a nearly entirely 3D printed rocket is very different," he said.
"For us, starting from scratch and keeping true to this vision of part-count reduction, designing from the beginning for 3D printing, has led us really leapfrog a lot of other people in this space," he said.
The idea quickly gained a lot of support, of at least $1.3 billion dollars, not least from Mark Cuban, who reportedly responded within five minutes to Ellis' pitch email with $500,000 of the company's seed round.
Ellis says he's revolutionizing the rocket-making industry with his approach.
"It's more similar to what Tesla did with the shift from gas internal combustion engines to electrification, where they realized that you can't just take batteries in electric motors and shove them into a Ford or a Nissan on a traditional manufacturing line," he said.
The printers are flexible, quick, and smart.
The printers can put together a rocket in 60 days, according to Relativity Space's website. Competitors will take between one and two years to build a rocket, per the website.
Because the printers are so quick, it's easier to test different versions of the rocket, which is one reason why Relativity's development has been so quick.
The printer also learns from its mistakes, said Ellis.
"While it's printing, we're collecting many gigabytes and even terabytes of data per print," he said.
"We're also using data science and starting to use machine learning and other more sophisticated data-science techniques in order to have the printers learn from their own prints," he said, adding: "Essentially the printers and the process that the team is going through are getting smarter the more hours we print across our increasingly large fleet of printers."
That also helped the company develop its own aluminum alloy.
"That would only be possible because we're 3D printing. So it's a very integrated process between the design of the rocket and the design of the materials and 3D printers," said Ellis.
The rocket's engine, called AEON, is also 3D printed.
Relativity Space also designed rocket engines that are entirely 3D printed.
These engines are called AEON 1 and AEON R, AEON VAC. They all use a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid methane to propel themselves.
Terran 1 has nine AEON 1 engines powering its second stage. You can see the engines being fired here:
The company has recently launched its Stargate 4, its most advanced printer yet.
To scale up its production, Relativity Space recently released the latest iteration of its printer, called Stargate 4.
"That is brand new, or at least publicly brand new — it's been in development for a while now," said Ellis.
The difference is that this printer prints horizontally. "That will let us build significantly longer and larger single-piece sections with fewer joints," he said.
It should be able to print objects up to 120 feet long and 24 feet wide. It's also much faster — about 7 to 12 times faster than its predecessors.
The printer is a big part of being able to print Terran R, said Ellis.
Asked if the main goal is to print a rocket in one piece, Ellis said it could be possible, but probably would be impractical.
"Once you get to Terran R scale, you're talking about a vehicle that's well over 200 feet tall. You actually gain iteration speed and build speed by having multiple printers working in parallel," he said.
Ellis sees his race to Mars as more of a collaboration than a competition.
Though Ellis is keen to keep to his competitive deadline to get to Mars, he sees the competition as more of an opportunity for collaboration than a hindrance.
"As far as SpaceX goes I'm absolutely a fan of what they're doing. In fact, them landing rockets and docking at the International Space Station seven years ago when they were a 13-year-old company is one of the things that inspired me to start Relativity," he said.
SpaceX's upcoming planned Starship launch is a big part of NASA's plan to return to the moon, and ultimately Mars.
"It's really important they'll succeed and I do think they will succeed," said Ellis.
Rockets are only one of the products Relativity wants to build. Once it can demonstrate it can bring a payload to Mars, the next step is to bring its printers there.
"It was very clear somebody had to be the second company to join this mission, and that somebody also would need to build an industrial base on Mars. And I think that's gonna be built with 3D printers," he said.
"At first that may be spare parts and other small replacement components for things that break down once you're there. But I think it'll also start to really build out a lot of the food storage, water storage, other industrial equipment that you need initially to sustain kind of the early seeds of people there," he said.
This launch taught the company lessons it'll use to make its bigger rocket.
Ellis, now in his early thirties, told Insider before the launch he was ready to see his first rocket take flight.
"People are quite pumped, especially given this is such a unique launch with so many firsts, for not just Relativity, but for the industry," he told Insider before the launch.
Among the firsts tested in this launch were the first launch of a 3D printed rocket and the first flight test of methane-oxygen fueled engines.
Though Terran 1's launch is a "huge moment for us," Ellis said, the company will now focus its efforts on building Terran R.
"It's really key that we're proving the 3D printing technology works in flight," he said.
"We will take those lessons learned and then transition those into Terran R," he said.
Correction: March 8, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misstated the number of engines on the Terran 1 rocket's first stage. There are nine, not eight.
Read the original article on Business Insider