Relativity LC-16
An artist's concept of Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral, where Relativity will conduct launches of its Terran 1 rocket starting in late 2020. Credit: Relativity

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Relativity has added three people, all of whom previously held key positions at SpaceX, to its leadership team as it refines the technologies it will use on its rockets.

Relativity announced Feb. 14 that it has hired Tim Buzza as a distinguished engineer. Buzza joined SpaceX months after its founding in 2002 and stayed there for 12 years before joining Virgin Galactic and, later, Virgin Orbit, working on its air-launch system. Buzza initially joined Relativity in August as an advisor, spending a few days a week with the company before taking this full-time position.

Also joining Relativity is Josh Brost, former director of government business sales at SpaceX, who will take on a similar role, vice president of government business development, at Relativity. David Giger, who worked at SpaceX for 12 years, including as senior director of engineering for the company’s Dragon spacecraft, will be relativity’s new vice president of launch vehicle development.

In a joint interview, the three said they were all attracted to Relativity because of the market niche it was targeting — the high end of the small launch vehicle sector — as well as its use of advanced technology, notably additive manufacturing, to produce its rockets.

“Taking additive manufacturing to the highest level, and being the disruptors and the leaders in that, combining that with launch vehicles, I think is really exciting,” said Giger.

“It’s not really a small rocket, it’s not really a big rocket. I think it’s in the right category,” said Buzza, referring to Relativity’s Terran 1, which will be able to place up to 1,250 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

That rocket, Brost said, should attract interest from the Defense Department as it seeks to develop distributed, resilient constellations of small satellites in response to growing concerns about threats to space capabilities.

“If you look at the other small launch vehicles out there in development, most of them are much smaller than what we’re developing,” he said. “It looks like the DOD will need more capability than many of them are offering. Terran 1 is the right sized vehicle at the right time when the DOD needs that capability.”

The hires will round out Relativity’s executive team for the foreseeable future, said Tim Ellis, chief executive of the company. “The senior leadership team is very well built out at this point, and now we look to keep scaling the company,” he said. The company has grown to 64 employees, and is hiring at the rate of two people a week.

The company also announced it has secured a patent related to its additive manufacturing technology. The patent covers automation controls for the 3-D printing process the company uses to manufacture its vehicles, said Jordan Noone, chief technology officer of Relativity. That approach uses advanced systems like machine learning and computer vision to automate the process.

The technology covered by that patent, he added, could cover the use of 3-D printing systems beyond Earth when no crews are present. “You want the printer to be fully autonomous. You don’t want any need to have a metallurgist with your printer to be improving your process,” he said of such use cases.

Ellis said the company remains on track for a first launch of its Terran 1 vehicle by the end of 2020. Relativity announced an agreement last month with the U.S. Air Force to access Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The company now has a formal “right to entry” to the site, Ellis said, and is starting environmental work needed to construct its launch facilities there.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...