September 23, 2023

Artist’s impression of a Terran-R rocket launching into orbit.

Relativity space

3D printing specialist Relativity Space has raised $ 650 million to step up work on a fully reusable rocket that will attempt to challenge Elon Musk’s SpaceX in less than three years, the company announced on Tuesday.

The money will be used “to speed up some of the production ramp-up rate and get a higher start frequency as soon as possible as the demand is certainly there,” Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity Space, told CNBC.

Relativity’s new capital will focus on its Terran-R rocket, a launcher that is similar in size and performance to SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9.

Terran R will launch 20 times more than Relativity’s Terran-1 rocket, which the company will launch for the first time by the end of this year. Additionally, Ellis said Terran 1’s backlog makes it “the best-selling rocket in pre-launch history”.

The raise, which Ellis referred to as a “doubled war chest,” was led by Fidelity and comes eight months after Relativity raised $ 500 million in a round led by Tiger Global. The $ 650 million equity added BlackRock, Centricus, Coatue and Soroban Capital as new Relativity investors, with a variety of existing investors – including Fidelity, Tiger, Baillie Gifford, K5 Global, Tribe Capital, XN, Brad Buss, Mark Cuban, Jared Leto and Spencer Rascoff – building on previous missions.

Relativity has raised $ 1.34 billion in capital since its inception in 2015, with its valuation increasing to $ 4.2 billion from $ 2.3 billion in November. The workforce has grown to 400, with Ellis said the company plans to “add several hundred more this year.”

“We are committed to creating great value and we will certainly remain the second largest space company in the world,” said Ellis, as SpaceX has an industry-leading valuation of $ 74 billion.

A time-lapse from inside a 3D printed bay shows the manufacturing process for a Terran 1 second stage air tank:

Relativity space

Relativity is building the first iteration of its Terran-1 rocket and has manufactured 85% of the vehicle for the first launch. It uses several 3D printers, all designed in-house to build Terran 1, and will do the same for Terran R.

The missiles are designed to be almost entirely 3D printed, an approach that Relativity says is less complex and faster to build or modify than traditional missiles. Additionally, Relativity says its simpler process will be able to turn raw materials into a rocket on the launch pad in less than 60 days.

“We’re seeing in the market right now that there has to be another fast-paced, disruptive startup company that is actually going where the puck is going,” Ellis said.

He added that Relativity “never seriously considered the SPAC path” as he believes his company does not need to go public just yet and can tap “almost limitless capital” in the private markets. A SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) is a blank check company that raises capital from investors to fund a merger with a private company to take it public.

Ellis noted that Relativity received higher fundraising offers than what it had accepted from Fidelity but went as a leader because of its prestige and reputation with the company.

Relativity Space was ranked 23rd on this year’s CNBC Disruptor 50 list.

Take over SpaceX

The row of two story tall 3D printer bays at the company’s headquarters.

Relativity space

Relativity’s Terran-1 rocket is expected to launch 1,250 kilograms into low earth orbit. This puts Terran 1 in the middle of the US launch market, in the “medium-lift” section between the Electron from Rocket Lab and the Falcon 9 from SpaceX.

But Terran R would compete against each other with Falcon 9: Aimed at a capability of more than 20,000 kilograms in low earth orbit, almost as large with 216 feet in length, slightly wider with a 4.50 meter diameter and a similarly large nose tip con satellite into space bring.

SpaceX’s rocket has nine Merlin engines in the booster, each capable of about 190,000 pounds of thrust, while Relativity’s Terran R booster will have seven Aeon R engines, each said to have 302,000 pounds of thrust. Earlier this year, Relativity completed a full test ignition of a Pathfinder engine using liquid oxygen and liquid methane as fuel.

Musk’s company ships its Falcon 9 boosters over the highways from its California headquarters, and Ellis said Relativity will similarly ship its Terran R boosters overland to the Texas coast before being on a barge to its engine test facility in Mississippi and then transported on another barge to Florida.

Relativity aims to launch the first Terran-R mission in 2024 from the LC-16 launch pad at Cape Canaveral, where the first Terran-1 missions will also launch. While Relativity is “almost out of space,” at the headquarters it moved to last summer, Ellis said the company has the core infrastructure needed to manufacture Terran R. It has five large 3D printers and five smaller “development” printers, and plans to add two more development bays in the near future. However, Ellis found that the company has completed work on a new 3D printer head that will more than double its printing speed.

“It’s not just about adding more printer hardware. We’re also continually using the data and learning from printing to actually speed up the process and also make changes to the printer design itself, ”said Ellis.

Ellis pointed out that Terran R has been part of the plan since Relativity’s early days, as the company saw strong “market interest and demand for the development of this vehicle”. Despite refusing to provide the client’s name, Relativity has a “prominent” first-time buyer for Terran R launches.

“We actually developed [Terran R] all the time, so in many ways I feel like this is a load off my shoulders, a big reveal, “Ellis said.” We just needed enough traction and resources to get where we were make it big now. “

Complete reuse of missiles

Illustration of a Terran-1 missile, left, next to a Terran-R missile and a silhouette of a person.

Relativity space

Ellis said he was a “big fan” of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which Musk’s company is developing to be completely reusable in hopes of making space travel more reminiscent of air travel.

“We need a vehicle that can take people to Mars,” said Ellis. “[Starship] is huge and I think that skill is necessary. “

Since Terran R aims to be fully reusable, Ellis described it as “more of a miniature spaceship than a Falcon 9 rocket”. While SpaceX is reusing the boosters on its Falcon 9 rockets, it has not been able to reuse the upper stages that put satellites into orbit. Relativity wants Terran R to be a “fresh take on the best possible” rocket by being fully reusable from the start.

The Terran R booster, or first stage, will use its engines to land upright and has features “that would be nearly impossible to produce without 3D printing”. Ellis said Relativity’s long-term goal is to achieve “hundreds to thousands of reuses” per missile. Reusing the second stage will be the next challenge, with Relativity building it “out of a more exotic 3D-printed metal” to make it lighter and withstand the intense temperatures of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Stage one reuse, or even stage two, may not work perfectly on the very first try, but with every single start-up that we generate revenue we can evolve the reusability,” said Ellis.

A fully reusable rocket would also be able to move cargo quickly from one point on earth to another, a mission that the US military has already shown great interest in with SpaceX’s Starship.

“I think point-to-point space transportation is an interesting market that we’re looking at with Terran R,” said Ellis.

In general, Ellis remains focused on “building an industrial base on Mars” and believes that both 3D printing and fully reusable rockets are key to making this happen.

“Nobody else is doing full reusability and I think that’s a bit depressing – there have to be more companies that are actually trying to shape the future on a grand scale,” said Ellis. “What we do is extremely tough, but we also have the best and most experienced team in the industry.”

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