Lockheed Martin selected Relativity Space’s 3D printed rocket to carry an experimental NASA mission aloft. The announcement marks Relativity’s first successful bid for a government contract, which augurs well for a company that promises faster rocket production with 100 times fewer parts.
The mission for which Relativity’s 3D printed rocket design
was selected tests a dozen cryogenic fluid management systems. Liquid hydrogen, a flammable substance with a very high specific energy, is one of the fluids being tested. Lockheed and its NASA partners will build the test payloads; Relativity is entirely focused on pushing these experiments into Earth orbit.
Relativity Space is a private aerospace manufacturer founded by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone. The founders held leadership positions at the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory before completing advanced educations in aerospace engineering. The company employs additive manufacturing to build launch vehicles for Earth orbit missions. This effort is privately funded by Bond, Tribe Capital, Playground Global, Social Capital, Y Combinator and Mark Cuban.
The company promises launch vehicles built with fewer parts, with mission-critical components like rocket engines manufactured in large single-part stages out of proprietary alloys. This building process decreases the risk of critical failure simply by decreasing the number of parts in each vehicle. Operators can expect greater reliability at an affordable price: SpaceX’s cost-savings measure re-uses launch vehicles; Relativity builds the vehicle for efficiency from the ground-up.
Lockheed selected Relativity for its efficiency and customizability. The launch vehicle’s use in cryogenic tests requires custom fairings for each test. Traditional manufacturing and tooling make time-to-launch impractical. Relativity’s additive manufacturing and robotic facilities quickly prototype custom designs. Selected fairings are quickly manufactured and assembled. Tim Ellis described the process: “With our 3D printed approach, we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days. It’s also software-defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object, we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last-minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise, you’d have to lock in the design now.”
Relativity plans to launch its first orbital test flight in late 2021.
Though Relativity has yet to participate in a mission launch, the company’s selection by Lockheed for these cryogenic testing missions gives it massive exposure. Lockheed is a premier defense manufacturer. If Relativity can fly a few successful missions under the company’s aegis, it will demonstrate AM’s utility in top-to-bottom spaceflight production processes.