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Air Force grants 3D rocket printer Relativity Space a 'premier' launch pad in Florida

Key Points
  • Relativity Space signs five-year agreement to use Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
  • The young start-up joins SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin as the fourth private company to have an orbital launch site at Cape Canaveral.
  • Relativity is building a mid-size orbital rocket with 95 percent 3-D printed parts.
A computer rendering shows Relativity Space's rocket Terran launching from Cape Canaveral's LC-16 launchpad.
Relativity Space

Relativity Space, a three-year-old start-up that aims to build rockets using 3D printers, announced a contract Thursday with the U.S. Air Force to build and operate a launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

"Cape Canaveral is the premier launch site in the U.S.," Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC.

The five-year "multi-user" agreement means Relativity can begin operating out of Launch Complex 16, or LC-16, the historic location of hundreds of American space launches. There is no monetary exchange or lease payment to the Air Force for this contract. The agreement includes an option to extend for an exclusive 20-year term.

"We have a very clear path toward having this be an exclusive use site for us in the future," Ellis said.

A computer rendering shows what LC-16 may look like with Relativity Space facilities.
Relativity Space

The young start-up joins SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin as the fourth private company to have an orbital launch site at Cape Canaveral. LC-16 was built by the Air Force in the 1950s, as a missile test site. Ellis estimates the launch facilities represent more than $10 million worth of existing infrastructure.

"We were impressed with Relativity's seasoned team and its innovative approach to space technology and we look forward to working with them as they continue the process to launch the Terran 1 vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station," said Thomas Eye, the director of plans & programs for the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force.

Relativity's Terran rocket is mid-priced at $10 million per launch.

The rocket market is typically divided between light vehicles, at $2 million to $5 million, and heavy vehicles, at $60 million to $400 million. The mid-sized Terran will be 95 percent 3-D printed, with less than 1,000 individual parts. Rockets typically have somewhere around 100,000 or more individual parts.

Ellis said the launch site will be ready before they are expected to launch at the end of 2020.

A computer rendering shows what LC-16 may look like with Relativity Space facilities.
Relativity Space

He called the site a "significant investment," although he said LC-16 solves a massive problem: Time. It would take about four years to build Relativity's own launchpad from scratch, Ellis estimated.

LC-16 also comes with "significant payload processing and other auxiliary facilities," Ellis added."Our long term vision is of 3-D printing rockets on Mars," Ellis said.

Relativity has raised more than $45 million in venture capital from investors like Social Capital, Playground Global and even Mark Cuban. It has built one of the world's largest 3-D printers, called Stargate, as well as developed its own rocket engine called Aeon 1, which has been tested more than 124 times.

The rocket company now inhabits more than 60,000 square feet of real estate with 60 employees. Relativity only had 10,000 square feet of space and 14 people on its payroll a year ago, Ellis said, making its progress "blindingly fast."

One of Relativity's high profile hires was Tim Buzza joining as an advisor last year. Buzza comes from a rich rocket heritage. He was leader of advanced development at Boeing, vice president for years at SpaceX, and VP of launch for Virgin Orbit.

"We've in many ways had our pick of people in the industry," Ellis said. But it's getting a little cramped at Relativity's headquarters in Los Angeles, California. Ellis said the search is on for a new L.A. headquarters.

Relativity already has a 20-year leasing agreement with NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to test fire its rocket engines. The contract gives Relativity access to four robust testing chambers at Stennis.