These Giant Printers Are Meant to Make Rockets
Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone are both in their mid-20s, and it shows. The two aerospace engineers are energetic, optimistic, and so ambitious they can’t help sounding a little bonkers.
In a small factory a couple of miles from Los Angeles International Airport, Ellis and Noone have spent the past two years working to build a rocket using only 3D printers. Their startup, Relativity Space Inc., is betting that removing humans from the manufacturing equation will make rockets way cheaper and faster to produce. The going rate for a rocket launch is about $100 million; Relativity says that in four years its price will be $10 million. “This is the right direction,” says Ellis, the chief executive officer, during the first-ever press tour of the company’s headquarters. “The 3D printing and automation of rockets is inevitable.”
That direction is less obvious than he makes it sound. Although a couple of companies have 3D-printed whole rocket engines and other parts to make them more durable (molten metal shaped into a single part is less vulnerable to wear and tear than a bunch of pieces fitted together), 3D printing tends to be slower and more expensive than old-fashioned welding. Faced with that problem, Relativity decided the solution was to build its own printers.
The printers, among the largest ever, consist of 18-foot-tall robotic arms equipped with lasers that can melt a steady stream of aluminum wire into liquid metal for shaping. Ellis and Noone say a handful of the arms can work together to create the rocket’s entire body as a single piece, guided by custom software that monitors their speed and the metal’s integrity. They haven’t performed that task yet, but the printers have already made a 7-foot-wide, 14-foot-tall fuel tank in a few days and an engine in a week and a half. Relativity says a whole rocket can be built within a month if the company makes good on the promise of its technology. By comparison, the most efficient rocket-making processes today require hundreds of people working for many months.
Ellis and Noone, the chief technology officer, met as undergrads at the University of Southern California, where they spent their free time working on a rocket as part of the aerospace club. After graduation, Ellis went to work at Blue Origin LLC, the rocket company owned by Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos, and successfully lobbied to increase the company’s use of 3D-printed metal parts. Noone took a job with SpaceX, the rocket company of Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, where he worked mostly on engine design. The two started dreaming up their company during late-night phone calls, often while at least one of them was coming home from work. “We put these spreadsheets together to figure out why rockets were still so expensive,” says Noone. “The fact is that 80 to 90 percent of the cost is labor.”
Most of the grunts and groans heard in Relativity’s factory are from the stuntmen training at the gym next door. The printer arms do the startup’s heavy lifting, streaming 8 inches’ worth of liquid metal per second onto a garbage-can-size turntable that looks like a futuristic potter’s wheel. A few hours in, the lasers’ immense heat has kicked the temperature at the top of the factory up to 140F. Ellis and Noone’s team keeps things from getting too humid on the ground by covering the laser machines with nylon tents originally meant for indoor marijuana growers.
Near the back of the factory, Relativity is tinkering with alloys to make its metals better suited for 3D printing and to be able to combine more of a rocket’s hull and inner workings. “The space shuttle had 2.5 million moving parts,” Ellis says. “We think SpaceX and Blue Origin have gotten that down to maybe 100,000 moving parts per rocket. We want to get to 1,000 moving parts, fewer than a car.”
Relativity is running lean, with just 14 full-time employees and $10 million in funding from the likes of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, venture firm Social Capital, and startup accelerator Y Combinator. In June it successfully test-fired its printed engine at a NASA facility in Mississippi. By mid-2020 the company plans to print a 90-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide rocket that can carry 2,000 pounds to orbit; the founders say it’ll fly in 2021. At that size and the $10 million launch price, the rocket could take smallish corporate satellites into orbit for far less than what government-run space agencies charge.
Four years, however, is a long time. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX are run by billionaires with a knack for making things cheaper; over the past decade, Musk’s team has used advances in consumer electronics, software, and manufacturing to cut launch costs to $60 million, from the typical $100 million to $300 million. Both companies have also started to perfect reusable rockets and can take more cargo to orbit on their much larger craft.
Relativity won’t be the first lean rocket startup to market, either. New Zealand’s Rocket Lab Ltd. plans to begin commercial launches in a matter of months, charging clients $5 million a flight, and a handful of other rocket startups are set to follow over the next two years. A glut of rockets could blunt interest in Relativity’s unconventional approach. “Anything like that is going to need significant demand to justify the upfront costs,” says Tim Farrar, a satellite and telecommunications consultant at analyst TMF Associates. “Even if this can be done technically, it’s far from clear how they make a return on investment.”
Ellis says Relativity’s advantage over other rocket makers is that it has fundamentally rethought the whole manufacturing process. Cuban says he’s on board for uses for their jumbo 3D printers that run beyond rocketry. “I think their technology has a great chance of succeeding,” he wrote in an email. “I thought that the tech would work not just for space but for other applications as well.”
The boldest future application of Relativity’s machines could take place on Mars. Ellis says the company plans to refine its printers so they’re durable and adaptable enough to help create the buildings that make up a space colony. “If you think that type of future is inevitable, then we will need lightweight, intelligent, and automated manufacturing to build stuff on another planet,” he says. “Our long-term mission is to print the first rocket on Mars.” Top that, Elon.