Relativity Space, a growing startup that aims to almost entirely 3D-print rockets, on Wednesday announced it struck another major launch deal, as well as an agreement with the U.S. Air Force, to build a launchpad on the California coastline.
The Los Angeles-based rocket builder signed an agreement with satellite operator Iridium Communications, to launch up to six satellites as needed as early as 2023. Over the course of more than half a dozen launches with SpaceX, Iridium completed its second-generation satellite constellation in January 2019, with 66 operational satellites and 9 spares in orbit.
The Iridium deal means Relativity now has agreements to launch for five different companies, having previously announced contracts with Canadian satellite communications operator Telesat, California-based Momentus, Thai satellite broadband company mu Space and Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. All the contracts have remarkably come before Relativity's first launch, which is scheduled to happen before the end of 2021.
"People are really excited to see where the 3D-printing technology goes," Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC. "We're going to be able to serve customers in a way that just wasn't possible before."
Relativity has continued to grow and make progress despite the coronavirus pandemic. Ellis said the company now has about 170 total employees on staff, with hiring continuing during the crisis thanks to the $140 million it raised in October. Relativity's investors include Social Capital, Playground Global, Y Combinator, Bond Capital, Tribe Capital, Jared Leto and Mark Cuban.
For Iridium, the deal represents a cost-saving option for whenever it may need to replenish its satellite constellation. Ellis explained that Relativity would "launch each one at a time" on its Terran 1 rocket. Still in development, about 95% of the parts for Terran 1 are being 3D printed. Relativity says it boasts 100 times less parts than traditional rockets and therefore a simpler supply chain that can turn raw material into a rocket on the launchpad in under 60 days.
"Relativity's Terran 1 fits our launch needs to [low Earth orbit] well from both a price, responsiveness and capability perspective," Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement. "The upgraded Iridium satellite constellation is operating incredibly well, but it's prudent to have a cost-effective launch option available for future spare delivery."
Relativity also announced that it has an agreement with the military for a launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company plans to build a new launch facility called B-330 at a site to the south of the existing launchpad SLC-6 on base. Relativity will fund the site's construction, with Ellis saying he expects it will cost upwards of $10 million to build.
Iridium acts as the "anchor customer" for Relativity to build the launchpad, as Vandenberg's location allows access to the orbits in which the satellite company operates. But Ellis said that Relativity has gotten interest from even more customers to launch from the West Coast.
"Vandenberg is going to be used quite extensively," Ellis said.
Ellis added that launching from Vandenberg "has been in the works for some time" — and the Air Force, for its part, welcomed Relativity.
"We are impressed by Relativity's innovative approach to reinventing aerospace manufacturing via 3D metal printing and robotics paired with an executive team of seasoned aerospace leaders. We look forward to working with Relativity as its West Coast launch partner for many years to come," 30th Space Wing commander Colonel Anthony J. Mastalir said in a statement.
The company still plans to launch its first missions from Cape Canaveral in Florida, so adding Vandenberg to its portfolio allows "access to all major orbits that almost any customer wants to launch to," Ellis said. Relativity has already broken ground on LC-16 in Florida and is currently doing demolition and construction to get the launchpad ready.
Relativity continues to build up its Long Beach factory, which Ellis said should be done by the end of the year. That will include two new 3D-printers, needed to build the largest parts of Terran 1. Before the year is out, Ellis said Relativity would be producing full rocket stages and begin testing on second stage structures — the physical top third or so of the rocket. In a few months, Relativity also plans to start "full integrated engine tests" of its most powerful rocket engine, Ellis said.
The company continues to hire, with Ellis saying Relativity's brought on new employees even since the pandemic began. That includes hiring Relativity's first CFO: Muhammad Shahzad, a former Goldman Sachs VP and most recently the CFO of The Honest Company, a Los Angeles-based consumer goods specialist. Relativity also snagged Zach Dunn as the company's senior vice president of factory development — Dunn spent nearly 13 years at SpaceX, rising to SVP of launch and production for Elon Musk's rocket company.
"We have an insanely experienced team," Ellis said. "I think this technology is going to be among the most disruptive in our lifetime in this industry and then aerospace more broadly, besides reusable rockets. No one has fundamentally changed manufacturing for 60 years."
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