Rocket startup sees big future in military launch
WASHINGTON — Startup CEOs generally have mixed feelings about working with the Pentagon. Tim Ellis, chief executive of rocket maker Relativity Space, most certainly does not.
Ellis predicts his company’s 3D printed rockets — at $10 million per launch and entirely produced in the United States — will be flying military satellites a few years from now.
“We won’t just be a government contractor. We have significant commercial interests, but we really think we can serve both markets,” Ellis told SpaceNews.
Using what it claims to be the world’s largest metal 3D printer, Relativity Space is developing a rocket to lift satellites of up to 1,250 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The vehicle fits in the broad category of small launchers but is significantly larger than the micro launchers that other space startups are building today.
Los Angeles-based Relativity Space will be one of the few domestic players in a payload segment of the market that is dominated by foreign firms. Ellis believes this will pu the company in an advantageous position to compete for military contracts.
A launch site in the United States will be selected later this year. The company expects to fly its Terran 1 rocket by late 2020, with a goal to start commercial launches in 2021. Terran’s 3D printed engine, named Aeon 1, is being tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi, where the company signed a 20-year lease.
Although it has no signed contracts, Relativity Space has lined up a billion dollars worth of launches in letters of intent and memoranda of understanding with commercial and government customers.
Ellis foresees the U.S. military becoming an important customer to Relativity Space. The Pentagon’s posture that views space as a battlefront favors nimble suppliers that can manufacture products fast, he said. “They need the ability to reconstitute constellations quickly. This is super important based on conversations we’re hearing at the government level.”
A voice for space startups
As a new member of the National Space Council’s users advisory group, Ellis sees himself as the voice of privately backed space startups. And at the age of 27, he is by far the youngest in the group and a representative of a new generation of space entrepreneurs. A propulsion engineer, Ellis formed Relativity Space in 2015 with fellow Blue Origin alum Jordan Noone.
“I bring a fresh perspective to the council,” he said. Government officials and legacy companies have not fully grasped the significance of new manufacturing technologies, he said. With 3D printing and robotics, Relativity will be able to build a rocket from scratch in 60 days, compared to 12 or 18 months using traditional manufacturing methods.
To win Pentagon contracts, vendors have to satisfy government mission needs and also meet strict domestic sourcing requirements. “Our rockets are made entirely by U.S. citizens and funded by U.S. investments. That’s a little unique,” Ellis said. Some of his competitors are either funded by non-U.S. investors or have parts made in other countries. “Ours being entirely American meets some of what the government is looking for, especially the supply chain being based in America.”
Military and intelligence agencies have warned that adversaries will try to disrupt or blind U.S. satellites like GPS and communications spacecraft in geosynchronous Earth orbit. They are discussing a shift of military space capabilities to more resilient constellations of smaller satellites in lower orbits that could be repaired or replaced quickly.
“This will not be possible without 3D printing and an automated approach,” said Ellis. He noted that 3D printing has not been widely adopted yet in the space industry. “Many companies are doing components piece by piece. We are going all in, printing pretty much the entire thing. We really think that’s the future.”
And the $10 million price per launch will be attractive to the military, he said. “We talked to SMC,” Ellis said referring to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that oversees military space programs. The military will need launch vehicles to support payloads that are larger than cubesats but a lot smaller than traditional military spacecraft. “To get bigger telescopes and optics, our launch cost is affordable for that size,” Ellis said. “You would pay almost what you would pay for a cubesat launch.”
Ellis recognizes that there are downsides to being a Pentagon contractor, like considerable overhead costs and red tape. “But that is why we are excited to be on the National Space Council’s advisory group,” said Ellis. “By partnering with the government we are hoping to inform ways to make things more streamlined and incentivize innovative approaches that attract investors.”
The government’s slow and bureaucratic procurement system has frustrated many companies in the industry and deters startups from even trying to compete, he said. “Now that we’ve been given a pretty big microphone, it feels that in order to keep the U.S. competitive internationally that people are going to have to listen.”
The space technology that venture-funded companies are bringing to market could very well be achieved by other countries. “We just have to make sure that we’re doing stuff fast enough and incentivizing private investors,” Ellis said. And simplifying the procurement process would be one way to do that. “If you want responsive launch and you want to get the innovation, you have to make it just as easy to work for the government as working with a commercial company, that’s the vision.”
The commercial demand will grow, he said. “If those customers are easier to work with, then companies are going to prioritize working with commercial providers, they will fill up their manifest with commercial providers if the government isn’t easy to work with.”