This company is building the first autonomous rocket factory using 3D-printed rockets

Relativity Space is using 3D printing technology to revolutionize how rockets are built and flown. The company believes that we as a society need to be realistic in considering living in environments that aren’t Earth, but in order to do so we need to build rockets more quickly and cost effectively. Currently, the way rockets are built, making a small adjustment can take both a lot of time and money, but with 3D printing technology, a rocket can be made a half-inch larger with just a few clicks of a mouse. 

3D printing allows Relativity Space to manufacture things in ways that weren’t possible before. “We print the hardware, we proof the hardware, we take it to pressures that we expect to see in life and then we inspect it afterward to make sure the welds aren’t cracking, to make sure the hardware’s still usable, and then we assemble it,” NASA Stennis Site Director, Clay Walker, tells In The Know. “They do the assembly in Long Beach [California] and they put the lines on the valves, the batteries, the computers, and then they ship it to us.”

Once assembled, the next step is to test. Performance testing is done at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, where they make sure that when the rocket goes into space for the very first time, it does exactly what they think it’s going to do. Should any adjustments need to be made, Relativity sends it back to their design team and improvements can be made relatively quickly. 

Relativity’s first vehicle and first entirely 3D-printed rocket is the Terran 1, which successfully completed its mission duty cycle test for its integrated Stage 2, running the full test duration and marking the first time a 3D-printed stage has undergone acceptance testing. Mission duty cycle test essentially means that “you’re going to be running it at the same duration that it will actually experience in flight, so it’s kind of the final system checkout,” explains Relativity’s Senior Propulsion Test Engineer, Jordan Raice. If everything looks good, the rocket is one step closer to going to space. 

Terran 1 is Relativity’s proof of concept, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for aerospace 3D printing technology. “There [are] so many opportunities to refine it even more, to make even more complex structures, to manufacture things even more quickly, and then eventually to use this technology in other applications [like] being able to 3D print something in orbit or on another planet is a really big deal,” says Raice. 

Relativity believes that 3D printing isn’t just the future of rockets, but the future of a lot of aspects of our lives. “I think companies like Relativity are paving the way for 3D printing manufacturing to become more ubiquitous in our societies,” shares Propulsion Test Engineer, Zoe Dickert. “3D printing is the future of all manufacturing, and this is a great place to really put that to the test. We’re not just another rocket startup. We’re a rocket startup focused on 3D printing manufacturing.”

“We don’t want to just be flying our rockets to Mars, we want to fly our printers to Mars on our rockets,” adds Walker.

At the end of the day, the sky’s the limit at Relativity, and the company only sees 3D printing accelerating society towards a better future. Raice concludes, “Having the technology to allow us to travel to far-off places, to build things on far-off places, to thrive and really live in these environments I think is super important and something that gets me really excited about what we’re doing here.”

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