Relativity is 3D printing rockets and raising billions. Will his technology work?
Relativity Space, the rocket startup Ellis co-founded in 2015 after leaving Jeff Bezos’ space company, plans to build fairly small rockets that can blast orbiting satellites cheaply and quickly. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same business plan presented by dozens of rocket startups all over the world.
Relativity stands out in some ways. The company has raised around $1.2 billion in just eight months, a level of investment spree enjoyed by few in the space industry outside of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Relativity’s huge factory in Long Beach, Calif., bustles with activity as rocket parts are transported from area to area, workers compete for oversubscribed office space and massive hangar doors hide some of the world’s largest 3D printers at work.
This is the characteristic feature of the company.
Relativity plans to 3D print nearly every component of its 200-foot-tall orbital rockets, called Terran 1. And Ellis says that’s why investors are so intrigued, lured by the promises that Relativity’s methods will allow them to build a rocket in less than a month, while labor-based rocket manufacturing can take months to over a year. Using robots will also allow Relativity to quickly incorporate small changes into its rocket designs, potentially allowing the company to develop a much better product in less time, according to Ellis.
The catch is that Relativity has never launched a rocket.
And because it hasn’t been launched, it’s not yet clear if 3D printing can really prove to be an effective alternative to the traditional method of building rockets, which requires tens of thousands of components. . Much of a traditional rocket is also welded or assembled by hand – a process that can be both very expensive and very time-consuming.
But taking a rocket idea from the drawing board and turning it into a hulking, fuel-guzzling machine capable of tearing itself away from Earth’s gravity and safely orbiting a satellite is the notoriously difficult litmus test that any company of potential rockets must succeed. Whether the ideas of relativity actually translate into market efficiency is an open question. Ellis says he understands the stakes.
“I think the whole momentum is there,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane. “We have to show what we have. But the main parts of the rocket have already flown a simulated mission on the ground, and [we’re] pretty confident that we’ve overcome the hurdle where the 3D printed rocket is now unavoidable – really unavoidable.”
Financing the future
Relativity has the backing of a who’s who of high profile investors, such as Fidelity and BlackRock. It has reached a valuation of more than $4 billion – one of the most valuable companies in the burgeoning commercial space sector – by attracting the kind of backing most startups only dream of.
Ellis says investors also have good reason to be confident in his technology.
Other rocket factories use 3D printers to quickly draft some components, but most components are imported from suppliers through a complex supply chain. At Relativity, the rocket parts are built almost entirely by one-armed robots, spitting metals into intricate parts that can replace hundreds of tiny parts. About 90% of its rockets are 3D printed. Because of this, Relativity says it can use fewer than 1,000 parts where traditional rockets use over 100,000.
Ellis also told CNN’s Crane that he envisions his 3D printers as a game-changer for manufacturing in multiple industries, including aircraft, oil and gas refineries, wind turbines, and more.
He added in an interview with CNN’s Crane that he envisions “3D printing with AI and robotics [are] how things will work out on another planet.”
“I’m really optimistic in the long run,” he told Crane.
Relativity has the funds to keep trying if it fails, but time is running out. Several competitors in the field of small launch vehicles, namely Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Astra, have already successfully launched their vehicles.
Ellis, for the record, said the company already sells satellite rides aboard Terran R, though the rocket itself is currently just a digitally rendered idea.
What does all this mean?
The space is proverbially ‘hot right now’ and standing out from the crowd will be key as proving that what sets one company apart is a real game changer.
But as with most things in the aerospace industry, it can be hard to discern the hype and bluster of the real transformer. And in this case, Relativity’s real proving ground will be on the launch pad.
“We have a lot to deliver and a lot of value that we are committed to creating,” Ellis told CNN Business. “I’m very touched by that. Like, these people are lining up for Relativity, and other rocket companies can’t say that.”