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June 16, 2019
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United Launch Alliance

Dreaming of Mars, the startup Relativity Space gets its first launch site on Earth

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3D-printing the first rocket on Mars.

That’s the goal Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone set for themselves when they founded Los Angeles-based Relativity Space in 2015.

At the time they were working from a WeWork in Seattle, during the darkest winter in Seattle history, where Ellis was wrapping up a stint at Blue Origin . The two had met in college at USC in their jet propulsion lab. Noone had gone on to take a job at SpaceX and Ellis at Blue Origin, but the two remained in touch and had an idea for building rockets quickly and cheaply — with the vision that they wanted to eventually build these rockets on Mars.

Now, more than $35 million dollars later, the company has been awarded a multi-year contract to build and operate its own rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

That contract, awarded by The 45th Space Wing of the Air Force, is the first direct agreement the U.S. Air Force has completed with a venture-backed orbital launch company that wasn’t also being subsidized by billionaire owner-operators.

By comparison, Relativity’s neighbors at Cape Canaveral are Blue Origin (which Jeff Bezos has been financing by reportedly selling $1 billion in shares of Amazon stock since 2017); SpaceX (which has raised roughly $2.5 billion since its founding and initial capitalization by Elon Musk); and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between the defense contracting giants Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense.

Like the other launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Launch Complex 16, where Relativity expects to be launching its first rockets by 2020, has a storied history in the U.S. space and missile defense program. It was used for Titan missile launches, the Apollo and Gemini programs and Pershing missile launches.

From the site, Relativity will be able to launch its first designed rocket, the Terran 1, which is the only fully 3D-printed rocket in the world.

That rocket can carry a maximum payload of 1,250 kilograms to a low earth orbit of 185 kilometers above the Earth. Its nominal payload is 900 kilograms of a Sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers out, and it has a 700 kilogram high-altitude payload capacity to 1,200 kilometers in Sun-synchronous orbit. Relativity prices its dedicated missions at $10 million, and $11,000 per kilogram to achieve Sun-synchronous orbit.

If the company’s two founders are right, then all of this launch work Relativity is doing is just a prelude to what the company considers to be its real mission — the advancement of manufacturing rockets quickly and at scale as a test run for building out manufacturing capacity on Mars.

“Rockets are the business model now,” Ellis told me last year at the company’s offices at the time, a few hundred feet from SpaceX. “That’s why we created the printing tech. Rockets are the largest, lightest-weight, highest-cost item that you can make.”

It’s also a way for the company to prove out its technology. “It benefits the long-term mission,” Ellis continued. “Our vision is to create the intelligent automated factory on Mars… We want to help them to iterate and scale the society there.”

Ellis and Noone make some pretty remarkable claims about the proprietary 3D printer they’ve built and housed in their Inglewood offices. Called “Stargate,” the printer is the largest of its kind in the world and aims to go from raw materials to a flight-ready vehicle in just 60 days. The company claims that the speed with which it can manufacture new rockets should pare down launch timelines by somewhere between two and four years.

Another factor accelerating Relativity’s race to market is a long-term contract the company signed last year with NASA for access to testing facilities at the agency’s Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. It’s there, deep in the Mississippi delta swampland, that Relativity plans to develop and quality control as many as 36 complete rockets per year on its 25-acre space.

All of this activity helps the company in another segment of its business: licensing and selling the manufacturing technology it has developed.

“The 3D factory and automation is the other product, but really that’s a change in emphasis,” says Ellis. “It’s always been the case that we’re developing our own metal 3D printing technology. Not only can we make rockets. If the long-term mission is 3D printing on Mars, we should think of the factory as its own product tool.”

Not everyone agrees. At least one investor I talked to said that in many cases, the cost of 3D printing certain basic parts outweighs the benefits that printing provides.

Still, Relativity is undaunted.

But first, the company — and its competitors at Blue Origin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and the hundreds of other companies working on launching rockets into space again — need to get there. For Relativity, the Canaveral deal is one giant step for the company, and one great leap toward its ultimate goal.

“This is a giant step toward being a launch company,” says Ellis. “And it’s aligned with the long-term vision of one day printing on Mars.”

2018 ushered in ‘a potential space renaissance’

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The aerospace industry took flight with ambitious civilian and military projects over the course of 2018, and private investors took notice.

Rockets are flying to the far side of the moon. Entrepreneurs are creating new propulsion technologies to take rockets deeper into space and to make flying on Earth more electric. Finally, plans are afoot from private companies and governments to bring manned missions to the surface of the Moon and Mars.

And venture capital dollars are fueling this new boom in aerospace innovation, with firms investing over $2.3 billion in new companies over the course of 2018, according to data from Crunchbase.

This surge of interest comes as no surprise to longtime industry investors like Francois Chopard, the founder of Starburst Aerospace, an accelerator and investment fund focused on the industry since 2012.

It started in the past with only space. It was basically rockets and satellites and it used to be just a handful of players,” said Chopard. “Now it’s extended to aviation with all the [electric vertical takeoff and landing], hybrids and supersonic and defense planes.”

One startup developing electric planes, the Boeing and JetBlue-backed Zunum Aero, expects to make its first deliveries of new planes by 2022. And it’s not the only company that’s flying to market in a hurry. Wright Electric, Joby Aviation and Ampaire are all startups that are angling for their own place in the sky.

“We are seeing huge deal flow,” says Chopard. “There are 1,000 startups emerging every year on these subjects… After five or six years we are seeing many more people getting educated… seeing more and more people interested in investing in space.”

Among the investors expressing greater interest in the emerging startups looking to transform the aerospace industry are the very companies those startups are challenging.

“We disrupt ourselves so someone else doesn’t disrupt us,” Brian Schettler, managing director of Boeing’s HorizonX venture arm, told the Wall Street Journal last year.

Space startups command the most attention 

Boeing’s launch into startup investing comes almost directly as a result of already being disrupted in the space industry.

Elon Musk and SpaceX came from nowhere to become a serious competitor to the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that had enjoyed a near monopoly on contracts with the U.S. government for space missions.

And now the space industry is about to break wide open. In addition to Musk’s SpaceX there are companies like Relativity Space, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab, which launched its first mission for NASA in mid-December 2018.

“I’ve never seen the interest level so high to start new businesses,” said Hoyt Davidson, managing partner of investment banking company Near Earth LLC. “It’s a renaissance, a potential space renaissance,” Davidson told Space News about the newfound interest from investors in the sector.

But as Chopard notes, many investors have yet to really take the plunge into aerospace and space investing fully. 

“Right now what we’ve seen is large venture funds investing in space as a bet… if it works fine, if not… it’s not a big deal,” says Chopard. “We haven’t seen purely dedicated space or aerospace venture funds because of the lack of exits.”

Space, right now, still has a lock on investors’ attention. Google first showed the early promise of returns in the satellite business to investors when it bought Skybox Labs for $500 million back in 2014. Although the investment wasn’t a huge hit for Google, which spun out the company and eventually sold it to Planet. And Planet labs itself is highly valued, given a 2018 funding round that pegged the company at roughly $1.4 billion.

Between funding for Rocket Lab, SpaceX, Astroscale, Terran Launch, VectorLaunch, AxelSpace and Spin Launch, the bulk of venture dollars were invested in space and satellite companies.

ULA’s RD-180 powered Atlas V launch of an Air Force GPS asset in 2014 / Image courtesy of United Launch Alliance photo/John Studwell

More money is still needed 

That’s music to the ears of U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who sees in the new space race a nascent industry that could spur incredible job growth and wealth creation (in this, at least, Ross is right). But as Ross acknowledged, other sources of capital need to do more.

“We’re going to need better financing and insurance for the space industry,” Ross said recently in a public address quoted by Space News.”Missing from space financing are the bigger institutions, especially banks. Their participation will be necessary to execute longer-term commercial plans.”

At the start of his fifth year developing early stage aerospace companies, Chopard sees hope coming from the corporate investors who also serve as his partners … and in his own plans for for the growth of Starburst.

“I still think we are early in the process,” said Chopard. “It’s early and everybody has interest to invest in the early stage. We have seen Boeing doing follow ups and Airbus doing follow ups… they are looking at startups that will benefit the entire community.”

Meanwhile, Starburst is looking to raise a second venture fund of its own, and targeting between $100 million and $150 million for it. 

That fund will continue to support portfolio companies like Airmap, an aerospace startup focused on flight plans for drones; Nautilus, a drone for large cargo delivery; Orbital Sidekick, a developer of cubesats with hyperspectral imaging capabilities, and Optisys, which is manufacturing metal antennas for satellites using 3D printing technologies.

“The biggest obstacle is the entire maturity of the ecosystem… our next venture are building the fund and developing more early stage accelerators,” said Chopard. “The plan is to have these early stage accelerators where we take younger startups in order to build a stronger dealflow.”

NASA puts $44 million towards cryogenics and mid-air spacecraft retrieval

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NASA has announced a set of public-private partnerships with several U.S. space companies, totaling an impressive $44 million. Blue Origin, Astrobotic, United Launch Alliance and more are the recipients of up to $10 million each for a variety of projects aimed at exploring and utilizing space safely and efficiently.

The 10 awards are for “tipping point” technologies, as NASA calls them, that are highly promising but need funding for a ground or flight demonstration — in other words, to get it out of the lab.

ULA is the big winner here, taking home $13.9M split between three projects. $10M will go to looking into a cryogenic vehicle fluid management system that could simplify and improve lunar landers. The rest of the money is split between another cryogenic fluid project for missions with long durations, and a project to “demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities up to 8,000 pounds… on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity.” Really, that last one is the cheapest?

Blue Origin has $13M coming its way, primarily for… yet another a cryogenic fluid management system for lunar landers. You can see where NASA’s priorities are — putting boots on the regolith. The remainder goes to testing a suite of advanced sensors that could make lunar landings easier. The company will be testing both these systems on its New Shepard vehicle from as high as 100km.

The other big $10M prize goes to Astrobotics, which will like Blue Origin be working on a sensor suite for Terrain Relative Navigation. It’s basically adding intelligence to a craft’s landing apparatus so it can autonomously change its touchdown location, implement safety measures, and so on, based on the actual local observed conditions.

The Mars 2020 Rover will be using its own TRN system, and the ones funded here will be different and presumably more advanced, but this gif from NASA does a good job illustrating the tech:

Several other endeavors were selected by NASA for funding, and you can find them — and more technical details for the ones mentioned above — at the partnership announcement page.

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