3D-printed rockets are winning over SpaceX veterans

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Relativity, a space startup that wants to use its gigantic 3D printer to build rockets on Earth and, eventually, on Mars, is seeking its first patent—and the approval of industry insiders.

Founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone were engineers at Blue Origin and SpaceX before funding their own startup with a cold email to Mark Cuban. Working for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, they had become convinced the key to making rockets was to dramatically expand the use of additive manufacturing beyond individual components to make the entire space vehicle cheaper, simpler, and more reliable.

Now, their company has hired three former senior SpaceX executives, though Ellis stresses the hires came well before a recent round of layoffs at their Los Angeles neighbor.

Tim Buzza, one of the earliest SpaceX employees, has come on as a full-time “distinguished engineer” after advising the company on a part-time basis for nine months. David Giger, who led development of the Dragon space capsule for eight years, will lead development of Relativity’s first rocket, Terran 1. Joshua Brost, who helped win $3 billion of business with NASA and the US military for SpaceX, will become Relativity’s head of government relations in Washington DC.

CEO Ellis calls the hiring a “one-two punch of securing the business and executing with the most experienced team in the entire industry.”

It’s an interesting move for the industry veterans. Former SpaceX employees are in high demand, and Giger, Buzza and a third SpaceX veteran, Bulent Altan, launched an investment fund for space technology called Global Space Ventures. But the youthful rocket firm proved too attractive when they came by to kibbitz.

Relativity, which aims to launch next year, aims to have the right fit in a market split between large orbital rockets like those built by SpaceX or United Launch Alliance, and a cadre of small-rocket startups aiming to fly low-weight satellites. Relativity’s Terran 1 will carry 1,250 kilograms to orbit, about five to eight times more than Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and about 20 times less than SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

“The very small satellites are starting to incorporate propulsion…for collision avoidance, the power requirements are also increasing to enable larger payloads onboard those satellites,” Giger says. “All of those are driving the satellite designs to be slightly larger than the couple hundreds of KG class that you’re seeing…being able to lift one or multiple of those to deploy a plane of the satellite constellation is sort of a sweet spot.”

The industry vets also argue that a deep focus on 3D printing makes Relativity unique in a crowded rocket market that analysts predict will leave some new firms permanently grounded.

“3D printing will enable a design that has 100x fewer parts and allow for faster iterations with almost zero fixed tooling,” Buzza says, suggesting almost a sandbox for rocket science. Because the Relativity printer is so advanced, it has potential applications beyond the company’s own rockets. Noone, Ellis and a former employee have been awarded a patent for their work using machine learning to operate their printer, so that it can use sensors to perform quality control checks as it makes complex designs.

“I looked a lot of other companies,” Brost told Quartz. “What it really came down to is looking for the company that is most disruptive in the industry right now. [Relativity] can scale the large launch vehicle structures to other aerospace structures the future—it has the potential to reshape aerospace manufacturing as we know it.”

Now, with 64 employees and a launch site of its own, Relativity is deep in the throes of building and testing rocket hardware in the hopes of making it to orbit in 2020.