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Southern California startup bets on 3D printing to drive down rocket-building costs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If all goes as scheduled, a launch this afternoon from Cape Canaveral, Fla., will put the world's first 3D-printed rocket into orbit. Wow. A startup from Southern California wants to drive down rocket building costs amid a satellite industry boom. WMFE's Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The future of inexpensive space travel is at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 16.

PAT SVATEK: So here we are looking at the rocket.

BYRNE: Pat Svatek of Relativity Space looks up to see the first stage of the white-and-black rocket, known as Terran 1, as it sits on the pad in Florida. Inside a nearby hangar, the second stage, the part that hopes to reach orbit, engineers are finishing the final preparations on the vehicle.

SVATEK: Also interesting, you've got to feel this. How about the barrel side?

BYRNE: I don't think I've ever touched a rocket. That's wild.

SVATEK: Well, not only are you touching a rock, you're touching a rocket that's about to go to space.

BYRNE: Its surface is rigid and rough to the touch with lines and grooves. Eighty-five percent of this rocket is 3D-printed at a factory in California. It's taken seven years for Terran 1 to get to this point. Two engineers in their early 20s founded the company, building on their experience working at SpaceX and Blue Origin.

TIM ELLIS: When we started the company seven years ago, we didn't know 3D printing worked at all. And I thought there was a 50/50 chance within three months we'd find out it wasn't possible, period.

BYRNE: Company CEO Tim Ellis says Terran 1 has gone through extensive testing, pushing the limits of the rocket and its unique manufacturing process. Last year, the company test fired all nine engines for the duration of a mission. Ellis said getting to this point is a testament to the versatility of printing rocket parts.

ELLIS: The 3D printing technology is a big advantage because we can test and iterate and then reprint and rebuild changes in the design very quickly with fewer limitations on factory tooling and traditional manufacturing techniques.

BYRNE: Despite not even leaving the ground, Relativity Space is already designing its next rocket, one that can carry heavier payloads. The company says it has secured $1.7 billion in customer contracts.

CALEB HENRY: Relativity is entering the launch market at a really interesting time.

BYRNE: Caleb Henry is with Quilty Analytics, an investment research firm focusing on the space and satellite industry. He says there are dozens of launch vehicles in development around the world, all vying for a piece of the commercial market. That market is booming thanks to companies sending thousands of satellites into orbit to blanket the globe with internet access. SpaceX's StarLink, along with OneWeb and Amazon's Project Kuiper are building a demand for more commercial vehicles.

HENRY: Today, with the emergence of megaconstellations, we've seen the commercial share of the market outpace the growth of military satellites or science satellites so that they have become the driving force for launch.

BYRNE: This mission doesn't have a customer payload. Instead, teams are sending the first failed 3D-printed rocket part from their early designs. But no private company has reached orbit on its initial attempt, a statistic Ellis is keenly aware of.

ELLIS: We'd be the first. So from that standpoint, the historical chance of success is 0% based on other companies' track records. But we're certainly gunning for it.

BYRNE: If there is a launch failure, Ellis expects to get critical data from the attempt, and he's embracing that uncertainty. The first mission is named Good Luck Have Fun.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.