NASA is handing a free rocket test facility to 17 people and a 3D printer

Relativity’s engine at work.
Relativity’s engine at work.
Image: Relativity Space
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A promising rocket start-up will be given the keys to a NASA test site today, as private industry continues to fill growing demand for space technology.

Relativity Space promises to use an automated 3D printing system developed by its founders to simplify and reduce the cost of building of rockets. Still just 17 people, the company now has a 20-year lease at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. It gives them access to an office building, and four three-story tall engine test chambers made of blast-hardened concrete.

The trouble with testing rockets is finding a safe place for them to explode when things go wrong. SpaceX took over a Texas site developed by a previous space company that failed. Jeff Bezos was involved in a helicopter crash while hunting for the right spot to put Blue Origin’s test facility. Stennis opened during the US moon program, its location chosen in part because the huge rockets could be shipped to and from the facility on the Mississippi river. Relativity will take over 25 acres there to test as many as 36 rockets a year.

No money will change hands, but the move will allow a partially-constructed facility currently underused by the government to be maintained rather than fall into disrepair. And, if Relativity is successful, it could provide a new rocket for NASA to use in the future. Similar deals are now common between the government and rocket companies at government launch sites, where SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance all control pads and facilities for operating missions to space. This is the first time that Stennis has inked one of these public-private partnership agreements.

Tim Ellis, Relativity’s CEO, is a former Blue Origin engineer; his co-founder Jordan Noone worked at SpaceX. Realizing that a huge share of the cost of rocket production comes from labor, their company attempts to take the manufacturing innovations those companies brought to the aerospace sector—driving down part counts for simpler, cheaper and more reliable vehicles, and automating as much as possible—to their maximum potential. By automating the creation of 95% of the components in their vehicle, they believe they can build a $10 million rocket capable of carrying cargo weighing more than a metric ton into space in just 60 days, an impressive combination of price and speed.

“I couldn’t imagine a future where, in 50 years, rockets were not 3D printed,” Ellis told Quartz. He said that the company’s engine, which it has fired 85 times in tests, would traditionally be made of 2,700 individual parts, but that Relativity’s technology can spit out the entire machine in three pieces.

Relativity is competing against a bevy of small rocket start-ups, like Rocket Lab, Vector and Virgin Orbit, which all want to sell small rockets to cheaply launch the thousands of satellites envisioned by a new generation of ambitious satellite operators. Though some of those companies are closer to operation than Relativity, which expects to fly its first mission to orbit in 2020, Ellis notes that his proposed vehicle will carry more payload than his competitors, which intend to deliver just a few hundred kilograms to orbit.

Then there’s the fear that bigger competitors operating much larger reusable systems, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, will suck up so much launch demand that smaller rockets will be starved of business. Ellis is sanguine in the way that only someone who convinced Mark Cuban to give him $500,000 with a cold e-mail can be. He’s confident that the company will be “price and lead-time competitive far into the future.”

But he’s also bullish on what will happen as his company grows to 45 people over the next year and continues to refine their design and manufacturing processes, making the construction of space vehicles more like software engineering.

“Once you have so many fewer parts, that lowers the barrier entry for automobile-style automation, a bunch of industrial robots putting things together and doing inspection,” Ellis says. “We believe that will drastically improve reliability for rockets. Rockets can get cheaper, especially as frequency of launch is going up.”