- 3D-printing rocket builder Relativity Space is working on Terran R, a fully reusable launch vehicle that would be near the capabilities of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.
- Terran R is "really an obvious evolution" from the company's Terran 1 rocket, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC, the latter of which is scheduled to launch for the first time later this year.
- "I've always been a huge fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it ... making [a reusable rocket] has got to be part of that future," Ellis added.
Relativity Space, the 3D-printing rocket builder, is making another big bet: Developing a fully reusable rocket, designed to match the power and capability of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rockets.
Called Terran R, the reusable rocket is "really an obvious evolution" from the company's Terran 1 rocket, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC – the latter of which Relativity expects to launch for the first time later in 2021.
"It's the same architecture, the same propellant, the same factory, the same 3D printers, the same avionics and the same team," Ellis said.
"I've always been a huge fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it – even with 3D printing, and dropping the cost, and [increasing the] automation of a launch vehicle – making it reusable has got to be part of that future," Ellis added.
Terran R is the first of several new initiatives that Ellis expects Relativity to unveil in the year ahead, with the company having raised more than $680 million since its founding five years ago. Just like Terran 1, Relativity will build Terran R with more than 90% of the parts through additive manufacturing – utilizing the world's largest 3D printers as what Ellis calls "the factory of the future."
Relativity, valued at $2.3 billion, ranks as one of the most valuable private space companies in the world. Its investors include Tiger Global Management, Fidelity, Baillie Gifford, Mark Cuban and more.
Ellis emphasized that – even with Terran R's announcement – Relativity is "very focused on getting Terran 1 to first launch," which he said is still on track to happen later this year.
And the company plans to keep Terran 1 long term as Ellis believes "it's a great product."
"We're not pulling a 'Falcon 1 to Falcon 9' change," Ellis said, noting how Elon Musk's SpaceX originally was building and planning to operate a smaller rocket.
Terran R represents an expansion of Relativity's offerings in the launch marketplace.
Terran 1 is priced at $12 million per launch and is designed to carry 1,250 kilograms to low Earth orbit. That puts Terran 1 in the middle of the U.S. launch market, in between Rocket Lab's Electron and SpaceX's Falcon 9 in both price and capability.
Ellis said Terran R will be capable of lifting nearly 20 times as much payload as Terran 1, with Relativity targeting a rocket capable of launching more than 20,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. That would be near the 22,800 kilograms that SpaceX says its Falcon 9 rockets can launch.
While Ellis declined to disclose what price per launch Relativity expects for Terran R, he said that Relativity plans to be competitive with other offerings. SpaceX advertises Falcon 9 rocket launches with a $62 million price tag, with Musk's company saying each rocket costs about $28 million to launch.
"We really were asked by the market to create [Terran R] and we're currently talking with customers," Ellis said.
Relativity has a pipeline worth several billion dollars of contracts "in active dialogue" for both its Terran 1 and Terran R rockets, Ellis said, with customer interest split evenly between the two vehicles. He noted that the Terran 1 contracts that Relativity has announced to date have binding launch service agreements, so customers are paying on deposits for the rockets.
"There are tons of customers, all getting funding and developing big plans, and that's really driving the need for more launch capacity globally," Ellis said.
Not only does Relativity's CEO expect to be competitive in the marketplace, but he also believes there will be more spacecraft trying to launch than there are rides to orbit.
"There's actually going to be a launch shortage, if you look at how many people are trying to launch payloads to space," Ellis said. "Almost every model we've looked at, there need to be more launch vehicles to deploy even a fraction of the plans that people are talking about."
Ellis also touted Terran R's reusability as further enhancing Relativity's competitiveness.
"I just don't see a future where a fully reusable rocket doesn't exist and doesn't need to exist," Ellis said.
He highlighted SpaceX's work on reusability as informing Relativity's approach to Terran R, which he expects will be "fully reusable." SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable, in that the company lands the first stage (also known as the booster) and often recovers the rocket's nosecone. But SpaceX does not recover Falcon 9's second stages – a feat Relativity aims to pull off by 3D printing designs which "wouldn't be possible with traditional manufacturing," Ellis said.
"We will be able to print far more exotic and traditionally difficult-to-manufacture materials that make both first- and second-stage reusability much better," Ellis said.
Relativity's focus on 3D printing means the company doesn't have to change or add new equipment to its production line.
"The printers, straight up with software changes, will build Terran R," Ellis said.
"It's a completely different technology stack for aerospace," Ellis added. "Every aerospace factory you walk into today is still building products with giant fixed tooling and a very complex supply chain and it takes many years to develop a new product. If you want to do slight tweaks and changes, you've got to rip out all of that and go all over again."
Relativity has been building Terran 1 with the expectation that Terran R was coming.
Ellis noted that Terran 1 is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid methane – propellants are the focal point of next-generation reusable rockets. Even the company's testing facilities at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi "are already sized" to test the larger engines needed for Terran R, he said.
"Many of the pieces are quite similar architecturally, but the thing that's wildly different is the fact that [Terran R] is fully reusable," Ellis said.
Relativity has completed hundreds of tests on its Aeon 1 engines that will power Terran 1 – but Terran R will feature a "new engine called Aeon R" that the company has begun developing, Ellis said.
"We've also tested the engine for the upper stage," Ellis said. "It's a copper chamber engine ... and it's actually now the same engine on the upper stage of Terran R as on Terran 1."
The company expects to conduct "mission duty cycle tests," also known as a full duration test, of the new more powerful engine in the coming days, Ellis said.
Relativity plans to launch Terran R from Cape Canaveral in Florida, where the company previously secured a launch site for Terran 1.
Although Ellis declined to talk specifically about his expectations for Terran R's development timeline, he said the company is announcing it now because it's begun building hardware and conducting tests.
"I think there was only a matter of time that we were going to be able to keep it secret," Ellis said, noting that Relativity is "now out in the market and selling" Terran R launches.
The company will reveal more details on the design and specifications of Terran R later this year. As for how Relativity plans to land its Terran R rockets, Ellis said his company will utilize "maybe both" concrete landing pads and drone ships, as SpaceX does.
Overall, Ellis has a vision of 3D-printed reusable rockets as "the inevitable technology we need to build humanity's industrial base on Mars" – a goal similar to Musk's dream to "make humanity a multiplanetary species" by establishing settlements on the red planet. Ellis believes Relativity and SpaceX can be two companies leading a new era of exploration.
"We need to inspire dozens to hundreds of companies to do this," he said.
Subscribe to CNBC PRO for exclusive insights and analysis, and live business day programming from around the world.