Relativity Space’s monster factory produces reusable 3D printed rockets
The exterior of The Wormhole factory.
LONG BEACH, Calif. — It was a few days into the new year, but Relativity Space’s factory was far from quiet, a bustling din with giant 3D printers humming and construction clinking.
Now, some eight years after its inception, Relativity continues to grow as it pursues a novel path to making rockets from primarily 3D-printed structures and parts. Relativity believes its approach will make building orbital-class rockets much faster than traditional methods, requires thousands fewer parts, and allows for software modifications — with a goal of making rockets from raw materials in just 60 days.
The company has raised over $1.3 billion in capital to date and continues to expand its footprint, including the addition of more than 150 acres at NASA’s Mississippi Rocket Engine Test Center. Relativity was included in CNBC’s Disruptor 50 last year.
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The company’s first rocket, known as Terran 1, is currently in the final stages of preparation for its inaugural launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This rocket was built at “The Portal,” the 120,000-square-foot factory the company built in Long Beach.
The interior of The Wormhole factory in Long Beach, California.
But earlier this month, CNBC caught a glimpse of The Wormhole: “The million-plus-square-foot facility where Boeing Relativity is now filling out previously built C-17 aircraft with machines and building its larger, reusable line of Terran R rockets.
“I’ve actually attempted to finish this project multiple times,” Relativity CEO and co-founder Tim Ellis told CNBC, pointing to one of the company’s newest additive manufacturing machines — which has been internally codenamed “Reaper” in reference to the StarCraft Games – the company’s fourth generation of Stargate printers.
A close-up view of one of the company’s Reaper printers at work.
Unlike Relativity’s previous Stargate generations, which printed vertically, the fourth generation, which builds Terran R’s main structures, prints horizontally. Ellis stressed that the change enables its printers to produce seven times faster than the third generation and have been tested at speeds up to 12 times faster.
The scales of one of the Stargate “Reaper” printers.
“[Printing horizontally] seems very counterintuitive, but it ultimately allows for some change in the physics of the printhead, which is then much, much faster,” Ellis said.
A pair of the company’s “Reaper” 3D printers.
So far, the company uses about a third of the cavernous former Boeing facility, which Ellis says Relativity has room for about a dozen printers capable of producing Terran-R rockets at a rate of “several a year.”
For 2023, Relativity is focused on getting Terran 1 into orbit to prove its approach works and demonstrate how “rapidly we can push additive technology forward,” Ellis said.
“Obviously given the overall economy, we’re still very rough and making sure we deliver,” he added.
The company’s Terran-1 rocket awaits its first attempt at launch from its launch pad at LC-16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Trevor Mahlmann / Relativity Space
Correction: A previous story on this misrepresented the speed at which the company’s 3D printers were tested.