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A company that has its sights set on 3D printing rockets on Mars has gained another literal foothold toward making its launches reality.
Los Angeles-based Relativity Space announced Wednesday an agreement with the U.S. Air Force's 30th Space Wing to develop rocket launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base's Building 330 and an adjacent area, bringing its launch capabilities to both coasts. The military base, which is also used by SpaceX for launches, is located roughly 2 ½ hours north of Los Angeles.
Relativity co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis said in an interview with dot.LA that the agreement, which took years of "intense vetting," is evidence of "signs of confidence from the U.S. Air Force and U.S. government" regarding the company's 3D printed rocket technology.
Relativity also said Wednesday it had secured a new launch contract with Iridium Communications Inc. that takes advantage of the new West Coast launch site at Vandenberg to deliver its satellites into orbit using Relativity's 3D printed launch vehicle Terran 1.
The contract with Iridium is for up to six launches to deploy spare satellites from storage into low-Earth orbit if needed. The constellation of 66 satellites provides low-frequency satellite connectivity for people and things on Earth. These launches aren't planned to take place before at least 2023.
Matt Desch CEO of Iridium said in a statement that though the satellite constellation is operating well, "it's prudent to have a cost-effective launch option for future spare delivery."
Relativity already has a launch site agreement at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex-16 that was granted last year, and an exclusive-use agreement for rocket engine test sites at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The company has done more than 300 individual engine tests, Ellis said.
But Vandenberg specifically helps open up the ability to launch rockets on a southern trajectory over the open ocean into polar orbits and sun-synchronous orbits. Sun-sync orbits are helpful for satellites engaged in Earth imaging, analyzing weather patterns and surveillance because they keep the angle of sunlight on Earth's surface consistent to track changes over time.
The B330 site is also strategic because it is the southernmost spot on Vandenberg, which means that Relativity's rockets would not fly over any active launch sites and the company anticipates having the fewest scheduling conflicts from there.
"We are impressed by Relativity's innovative approach to reinventing aerospace manufacturing via 3D metal printing and robotics," said Col. Anthony J. Mastalir, the 30th Space Wing commander, in a statement. "We look forward to working with Relativity as its West Coast launch partner for many years to come."
The 30th Space Wing of the Air Force also manages the Department of Defense's space and missile testing.
Relativity boasts the largest 3D metal printer in the world that uses a specially developed custom alloy that's stronger than traditional aluminum to build its Terran 1 rocket. A traditional rocket takes years to make and is comprised of about 100,000 individual parts, only a single digit percentage of it may be 3D printed. By comparison, Relativity's rocket is made up of less than 1,000 parts with about 95% of the rocket 3D printed and can be built from raw materials to launch-ready in less than 60 days, Ellis said.
Relativity's New Partnership with Iridium Communications
Though they haven't yet launched a 3D printed rocket, the new contract with Iridium is the company's fifth publicly named launch customer — along with Momentus, Spaceflight, mu Space and Telesat — since April 2019. Relativity declined to discuss other contracted public-private partnerships that it has signed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not seemed to slow Relativity's launch plans; it's still on track for its first orbital launch by the end of 2021 out of Florida, Ellis said. One factor in keeping those launch plans through the pandemic: the company's Stargate factory and Terran 1 rocket are all designed, built and operated in the United States.
In February, the company announced it would be moving its staff to a new, 120,000 square feet headquarters in Long Beach that will be the site of the first-ever autonomous rocket factory.
During the pandemic, the company has added roughly 25 new members to its team, bringing the total employee count to 165 people. Its staff members have been working from home since early March with a single person per building at the factory who has been able to run 3D printers remotely.
Among the new hires in June are new CFO Mo Shahzad, who left his role as CFO at The Honest Company, and Zachary Dunn, who was a SpaceX executive responsible for production and launch and is now Relativity's VP of factory development for the new 3D printing factory.
Relativity closed its $140 million series C funding round led by Bond and Tribe Capital in October. The company is also backed by investors Playground Global, Y Combinator, Social Capital, and Mark Cuban.
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