3D-Printed Rocket Maker Gets Its Own Launch Site

Relativity Space now has the infrastructure to launch its innovative rockets.

Relativity Space has developed a revolutionary way to make rockets: using a 3D printer. And now, thanks to a contract with the Air Force, the company has a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida to test them.

“Getting the launch site agreement was a huge checkmark,” says Tim Ellis, Relativity Space co-founder and CEO. “That was the final infrastructure piece we need to have a clear path toward launching.”

Relativity has the largest 3D printer by volume in the world, called Stargate. It is capable of creating parts that are up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The company’s engineers designed it from scratch, which means they can scale up if it’s needed. Ellis claims that by relying on technology like Stargate to manufacture rockets, the company will be able to produce about 95 percent of the rocket through automated 3D printing. The last five percent will still require a human touch: testing, shipping and some manual assembly.

Relativity is building its rockets this way for two reasons. First, it keeps costs relatively low. Since the printer can make complex parts in just one piece, Relativity will be able to create rockets with 100 times fewer parts. For example, the Terran 1’s engine injector and chamber are made of just three 3D-printed parts rather than the nearly 3,000 parts needed by conventional rocket assembly processes. And the team can quickly adjust the design as needed through software. In addition, by simplifying the manufacturing process, Relativity can build a rocket much faster—the company aims to do so in as little as 60 days.

PBS News Hour on 3D printing, featuring Relativity Space.

Second—and this is a long-term objective—3D printing rockets could allow Relativity to take its manufacturing process to Mars, where it could set up a rocket factory on site. Once it perfects its printing process on Earth, the company hopes to reduce the size of its printers and ship them to Mars to see if they can print rockets with the raw materials on the red planet. If it works, it provides a way to get materials, and astronauts, back home to Earth.

Relativity’s rocket will be called the Terran 1: a 10-story-tall launcher capable of delivering payloads up to 2,755 pounds—roughly the weight of a compact car—into low earth orbit.

By securing a launch site for the Terran 1, Relativity has taken an important step forward to its eventual destination on Mars. And with more than $1 million in potential contracts—and a collaboration with NASA on new propulsion capabilities—it has an eager customer base for its innovative rocket-making technology.

Check out more about 3D-printed rockets at Rocket Lab Successfully Launches First NASA Mission with 3D-Printed Rocket.