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Relativity Space | Inventing the Martian Factory
The grand plan to use robotics and A.I. to expedite Mars colonization and space exploration.
Just 3 months ago (on my birthday), a company called Relativity Space launched its first rocket into space. This sort of thing isn't a novel occurrence these days with SpaceX launching multiple rockets every single week. But what made this particular rocket launch special was the fact that this rocket was the first 3D printed rocket ever. If you're wondering if you read that correctly, believe me, I get it. When I think of 3D printed things, they're usually small and made of plastic. Not something I'd consider launching into outer space.
But let's back up because the story of the founders of Relativity Space, this guy named Tim Ellis and his college buddy, Jordan Noone, is a rather interesting one. Tim and Jordan met at the University of Southern California at the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, a student club that became the first student group in history to launch a rocket into space. And while Tim and Jordan weren't students at USC for that historic moment in 2019, they paved the way for it years earlier when Jordan became the first student ever to receive FAA approval to launch a rocket.
After college, Tim went on to work at Blue Origin, the space company started by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, while Jordan took a job down the road at SpaceX. In beautiful foreshadowing, while at Blue Origin, Tim started a proof-of-concept metal 3D printing division that he believed could revolutionize the way rockets were designed and built. Unfortunately, Blue Origin was less interested in disrupting rocket part supply chains so they never really gave Tim a chance to build it out. Undeterred, Tim teamed up with Jordan and started a scrappy little space startup called Relativity Space with the mission of 3D printing an entire rocket. Casual.
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Origin story of Relativity
As you might imagine, you couldn't pick up a metal 3D printer that could print rocket parts from your local Best Buy, so Tim and Jordan not only had to figure out how to build a viable rocket... they had to build the machine that would build the rocket.
Even they realized that it seemed like a step backwards but they believed that given enough time, they could surpass traditional manufacturing and supply chains after they got over the technical hump.
"[The company was] founded on the premise that additive manufacturing, alongside artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics, will deliver eventual superiority over traditional aerospace manufacturing methods."
—Tim Ellis, Space.com
Once they got over that hump, it would unlock the ability to re-think rocket designs, reduce points of failure, iterate more rapidly and reduce reliance on third party vendors. Though daunting, the more the pair talked about this vision, the more convinced they became that it needed to exist.
3D printing the rocket provided a laundry list of benefits:
Simplified Supply Chain: Perhaps the most obvious benefit is the simplified supply chain. If you're sourcing parts from even a dozen different companies, you're reliant on each of them to deliver. Even if one part isn't available or is delayed, you're SOL.
Faster Iteration: In traditional manufacturing, the tooling needed to produce a part has to be set up. And because of the time invested in setting up the tooling, the manufacturers want to create a bunch of the same parts before repurposing the machines to create something else. So creating a one-off part is cost prohibitive. 3D printing provides the flexibility and "one size fits all" approach to manufacturing allowing for rapid iteration, experimentation and manufacturing.
Higher Flexibility: Because some parts are standardized in traditional rocket design, your design inherently has constraints. But if you could adapt any part to fit your needs, you could get creative with the rocket design.
Cheaper Labor: Even with human-assisted manufacturing such as Hadrian requires a highly skilled labor force. But because 3D printers require fewer people to operate them, you require fewer workers leading to lower labor costs and cheaper parts in the long-run.
Fewer Points of Failure: Because 3D printing is an additive manufacturing approach versus the traditional subtractive manufacturing that cuts away material, you can combine parts into a single unit reducing the overall number of parts which reduces the points of failure.
A sequence of “firsts”
Relativity was founded in 2015 and just a year later in the Summer of 2016, they successfully tested their first rocket engine called the Aeon 1. This was a special milestone for the company and for the industry because it was the first engine ever to be 3D printed, proving the viability of the company's ambitious mission.
Of course, an engine is only one part of a rocket. They still had a long way to go before they could send a rocket into space. Let's fast forward 7 years to March 22, 2023 when Relativity launched their very first rocket, the Terran 1.
"Relativity Space's first rocket, the Terran 1, is the world's first 3D-printed rocket. Its first flight — an expendable test launch dubbed "Good Luck, Have Fun" — lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on March 22, 2023. The rocket performed well for the duration of the first-stage burn and went through a successful stage separation, but an issue with the second stage meant the historic flight failed to reach orbit."
About 85% of the Terran 1 was 3D printed which made it the world's first 3D-printed rocket to pass the Kerman Line (100km altitude) and the first 3D-printed rocket to survive Max Q which is the maximum amount of stress on a rocket. Even though there was an issue in the 2nd stage that caused it to not reach orbit, the team was able to glean a lot of interesting data to use as they iterate on their second and larger rocket, the Terran R, which they are aiming to be 95% 3D printed.
"No one's ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit, and, while we didn't make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is viable,"
—Arwa Tizani Kelly, Technical PM at Relativity Space
The other interesting milestone of this launch was the fact that they used a methalox (liquid oxygen × methane) fuel. Though they aren't the first rocket in the world to do so, they are the first in the West, beating out SpaceX's Starship by a month.
While this milestone is incredibly exciting, two questions came to my mind when reading about their recent launch.
Why do they care that the next rocket is 95% 3D printed? Why isn't 85% good enough? Or 50% for that matter!
What's the significance of using a methalox fuel? Why not use rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) like SpaceX's Falcon 9?
After diving down that rabbit hole, I stumbled upon Relativity Space's grand vision. I was under the impression that 3D printing a rocket was a pretty ambitious vision already but as it turns out, that was just Step 1 🤯
Relativity Space's Grand Vision
When Relativity Space first got started, there were a lot of haters, as expected. Traditional manufacturing has had 200+ years to work out the kinks of creating precision parts en masse. Additive manufacturing on the other hand, was a relatively new method with less than 50 years under its belt. There were a lot of challenges to overcome and it was easy for people who couldn't see the bigger vision to quip, "you can already buy that part super cheap from an existing supplier, why are you re-inventing the wheel?"
And I think in the early days that criticism was understandable. Because Relativity did have to invest time and money to build the world's largest metal 3D printer (which they dubbed Stargate). And they did print a lot of parts that they could have just bought off the shelf. But with every part they printed and every upgrade they made to the printer, Stargate became more powerful and the parts became cheaper to produce.
"Stargate is a metal 3D printer for aerospace applications. It allows Relativity Space to build a rocket in 60 days, which will allow production to take place without involving complex supply chains and, according to the company, reduce part counts by 100x. [...] Historically, the production process for rockets was extremely long and complicated, taking up to two years due to the coordination required with numerous suppliers."
Now they can print a rocket in 60 days instead of the traditional 2 years while simultaneously reducing the part count by 100x. Impressive! But they weren't done. While 3D printing their own parts was a brilliant competitive advantage from a cost and risk management perspective, for Relativity it was more of a proof of concept.
They used machine learning to understand the makeup of the materials they were printing with and then...
they invented new alloys specifically designed for Stargate to meet mission-critical performance standards and then...
they used a combination of additive and subtractive manufacturing to produce parts with complex geometries which...
they tested using computer vision for real-time quality control and part inspection.
In case it wasn't obvious already, Stargate isn't your run-of-the-mill 3D printer. So let's get to the juicy part - the part that explains why it's all worth it.
“If we’re going to exist on Mars, there has to be a factory that’s small and lightweight, that can build products with not a lot of human labor, in very difficult conditions,” Ellis says. “I thought all of that described an intelligent metal, 3D-printing-based factory.”
—Tim Ellis, Fast Company
There it is. A factory on Mars.
That's the bigger vision. And that's why Relativity is using methalox fuel - because it’s made from two resources that can be found on Mars. It’s also why they’re working so hard to create a 3D printer that can analyze materials to understand their unique properties, get creative with part design based on those properties and 3D print 100% of something. Because if you're going to build a factory on Mars, you don't have the luxury of waiting around for:
a large quantity of materials to print with or...
a bunch of materials scientists to come analyze the local materials or…
a large quantity of highly-skilled workers to operate the factory.
So the factory needs to be highly adept at using local materials in new, creative ways with a skeleton crew.
Elon has predicted that for a Mars to be a fully functional and thriving settlement, we'd need no less than 1,000,000 people.
“Even at a million, you’re really assuming an incredible amount of productivity per person, because you would need to recreate the entire industrial base on Mars. You would need to mine and refine all of these different materials, in a much more difficult environment than Earth. There would be no trees growing. There would be no oxygen or nitrogen that are just there. No oil.”
—Elon Musk, interview with Aeon Magazine
To support a million people, we need infrastructure. And to build infrastructure we need the survival basics like shelter, heat, food and water. And to build our survival basics, we need tools and parts.
Elon’s plan is to shuttle tools and parts to Mars via resupply missions in between the thousands of human shuttles bringing people to Mars. But… what if you could just make your parts and tools there?
Relativity is on a mission to build our industrial base on Mars, from which we could build habitats, rovers, energy plants, food production facilities and water reclamation systems. Slowly but surely, we could begin to establish and grow our small Martian base into a thriving Martian colony.
Relativity's flagship product isn't their 3D printed rocket... it's their 3D printer.
Their small, lightweight, adaptive Martian factory.
That's the future Relativity Space is building.
But I'm curious to hear your thoughts!
Is 3D printing going to take over traditional manufacturing in the future?
Do you think this is the best option of expediting Mars colonization?
How soon before SpaceX buys them out? 😂
That’s all for this one - I’ll catch ya next week.