Relativity Space is 3D Printing the Future of Interplanetary Travel

In recent years, the most exciting advances in 3D printing have been made on a small scale. Structo3D uses additive manufacturing to help dentists make better medical devices. Choc Edge developed equipment that allows users to print beautifully elaborate edible sculptures. Moreover, researchers in Israel have utilized the technology to fabricate human organs.

California-based startup Relativity Space, however, has bigger ambitions. The firm is working to make interplanetary travel and colonization a reality using innovative large-scale 3D printing techniques.

Reaching for the Stars

Founded in 2016 by veterans of Blue Origin and SpaceX, Relativity Space is pursuing the same agenda of most-forward thinking aerospace companies; it wants to commercialize space travel. But the firm is employing radically different methods in chasing that goal.

At Relativity’s headquarters, the company has built the world’s largest metal 3D printer by volume. With the 20’ by 10’ machine, the startup can fabricate custom spaceship parts. The firm has made additive manufacturing the core of its business because of its efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Because the company designs and fabricates its components, it can make its modules as complex as needed. Indeed, the firm’s co-founder Tim Ellis said his startup could produce rockets with 100 times fewer pieces than established aerospace vehicles. For example, traditionally, spacecraft engine injectors and chambers are made using nearly 3,000 individual pieces. But Relativity fabricates the same section with only three parts.

Furthermore, as the company relies on 3D printing for production, its development process is highly efficient. If a particular element doesn’t work, the firm doesn’t have to redesign its fixed tools or revamp its supply line. Instead, its engineers make some revisions to their computer-aided design files and promptly restart production.

By reimagining spaceship construction from the ground up, Relativity has also greatly simplified and expedited its fabrication process. Currently, the firm is preparing its first rocket, the Terran 1, for launch. Having recently completed an update on its 3D printers, the startup now believes it can create an operational midsize spaceship in just 60 days.

Plus, the firm can automatically manufacture its products with a minimum of costly human labor. Relatively told The Verge it could make 95 percent of its rockets using 3D printers.

Ready for Liftoff

Despite beginning its life only three years ago, Relativity has come a long way toward achieving its objectives. The firm has completed more than 200 hot fire engine tests at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Moreover, the company has secured a 20-year lease to launch its rockets out of Florida’s iconic Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Relativity has also acquired the capital necessary to facilitate its commercial spaceflight operations. On October 1, the company completed a fundraising round that resulted in it receiving $140 million in new investments. Consequently, the firm is planning to use its $185 million in cash to start conducting spaceflights by 2021.

With its launch plans in place, Relativity has laid out an ambitious plan for its long-term roadmap. The startup not only wants to send a rocket to Mars, but it also wants to establish production facilities on the Red Planet. Indeed, as the company’s manufacturing process is almost entirely automated, it theoretically has the capacity to develop off-world factories.

As such, the firm could one day send crews to Mars with the components to construct the vehicle that will take them home. Admittedly, Relativity’s goals are undeniably audacious. But as one of science fiction’s great franchises reminds us, boldness is a core requirement of charting the final frontier.

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