Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Relativity Space is Aiming to Join SpaceX

I think it's pretty clear that no company has disrupted the launch business like SpaceX.  They're running a launch cadence unmatched by any other company in the world; their work to achieve booster recovery and reuse was done without risk to customers by doing experiments with boosters after they were thrown away (after staging), not to mention moving modern, hi-tech industry development methods into what had been a separate and distinct industry that supposedly made the most reliable, best products in the world. 

Most likely before the end year, we'll see an attempt to disrupt the launch industry yet again; this time by a company founded by people that admire SpaceX and Elon Musk.  People that want to further disrupt things and speed up the goal of putting people on Mars ASAP.  A company that wants to join SpaceX as an industry disruptor. 

Just three months ago, I ran a column on that company, Relativity Space and their plans.  To briefly recap, Relativity Space might best be considered an additive manufacturing company.  Their rocket bodies, engine parts and much of the vehicles parts are 3D printed (14 second time lapse record in this video).  Their first launch vehicle, the Terran 1, is proceeding to its first launch, but while making orbit is important, it isn't really what the launch is about.  The launch is about verifying that the 3D printed components of Terran 1 survive the worst of the launch profile, the maximum dynamic pressures the vehicle will feel and called max q, an important demonstration of the technology.  

Like most engineering, they say they've tested the system to levels worse than max q but there's no test quite as convincing as doing it In Real Life - and in front of customers.

Terran 1 is complex for a rocket in its size class - one ton to low Earth orbit - because while this is a test vehicle, their real goal is something more like a Falcon 9 and called Terran R - "R" for reusable.  To simulate the needed parts better, for example, the smaller rocket will have nine engines including all the hardware required to manage those.  Those are methane/oxygen engines, more like Starship than Falcon 9, with new technology igniters.  The mission could probably be more likely to succeed with fewer, simpler engines.  By mass, 85% of the Terran 1 is 3D printed.  

CEO Tim Ellis is very aware that no privately funded company has achieved orbit on their first attempt but thinks the mission might be "graded on a curve."  That is, if they don't make orbit, customers might decide if it was "close enough."

"While the rocket-loving engineer in me wants to say it's really orbit or nothing for the first flight, I think the business leader part of me knows that customers are going to tell us what enough looks like for the first flight."

Stage one of the Terran 1 rocket undergoing testing at Launch Complex-16 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  Relativity Space photo by Trevor Mahlmann.  While the photo is undated, the background reminds me of this test on August 22nd.  (Link to a self-starting video on Twitter)

Not long after this test, stage one was rolled back to their hanger where the second stage is currently being added.  It's expected that in a few weeks (mid-November) the completed vehicle will be rolled out to LC16 again, for more testing, Wet Dress Rehearsals and eventually static firing.

"We’ve bitten off a lot more upfront on the Terran 1 learning so that we can roll it into the Terran R, and get there faster," Ellis said. "That’s some insight into why customers are so excited about Terran R, because when they visit the launch site and look at Terran 1, a lot of their reaction is, 'Wow, this looks more like a miniature Falcon 9 than it does a cubesat launch vehicle.'"

In a few months, probably after the Terran 1 launch, Ellis plans to provide a "comprehensive" update on Terran R to talk about plans for reusability. However, initially, the vehicle will fly in an expendable mode to meet the demands of customers who want a medium-lift rocket, sooner. Much as SpaceX experimented with reusing the first stage, Relativity will practice water landings as well. Second stage reuse will also be folded in over time.

But rest assured, Ellis said that full reuse is coming. It's the future of Relativity Space and, he believes, the industry, as SpaceX develops Starship and other companies have revealed plans for such vehicles.

“They can’t be the only one disruptive medium- to heavy-lift launch company," he said. "Relativity is certainly playing to win."

Sometime recently, I read someone quip that Relativity Space has more money than God.  Maybe not, but funding doesn't appear to be an issue.  In their last fundraising round in 2021, Relativity raised $1.3 billion.  The company currently has nearly 1,000 employees, and a majority of them are working on Terran R, with the goal of completing the full-scale Aeon R engine test about 12 months from now and launching in two years. Likewise, they have a lot of obligations.  Relativity has sold $1.2 billion worth of launches on Terran R and has a "few hundred" million more dollars' worth of contracts under negotiation with customers.

"New Space" is being pretty darned interesting! 




  1. Just keeps getting more and more fun, doesn't it?

    Just a perspective, how many companies tried to put out new automobiles back in the first few decades of automobile production, and how many are around now? Something to ponder...

  2. Those cables holding everything down look like they have more tension than Dolly Parton's bra strap.

  3. Funny how the little private companies seem to be doing far better than ULA or Blue Origin. Hmmmm....

    Neat thing about Relativity is that in the future they have the handle on 3D printing not on Earth. If they can get there, at least. Maybe not on the Moon but on Mars.

    Sad to say, but right now I kind of want Boeing to not continue to participate.

    1. Beans, Boeing will never stop working on space projects until the federal teat dries up. As far as their reliability is concerned, you have to reverse the old mantra. "If it's Boeing, I ain't going."

      I wanted them to get out of space before I retired from there over ten years ago. The last project I worked on was a composite cryogenic upper stage tank. If their whole effort was managed as poorly as this component bit was, I wouldn't get within a mile of a fully fueled Boeing rocket, and I wouldn't send a monkey to space in one of their capsules.

      And that's how I feel about that.

  4. I have this fantasy of the Nasa/Big Aerospace finally getting a ship back to the moon and someone is already there selling pay for view of the landing...

    1. That would be either (or BOTH!) the Chinese or SpaceX...

    2. The SpaceX team would be showing the Chinese team how to do Texas-style barbeque, and would invite the NASA team to the party...after they figured out how to get out of their Oldspace Inc. craft because the door was jammed up by the hard landing. Elon would roll up in his Cybertruck Moon Trim, attached a chain, and get it open for them. Then there would be hugs all around, and beer, Lone Star Original and Tsingtao.