Relativity Space announces $650 million in funding to build a bigger 3D-printed rocket

Terran R
An artist’s conception shows Relativity Space’s Terran R rocket in flight. (Relativity Space Illustration)

Relativity Space, the space venture that got its start in Seattle and is now working on 3D-printed rockets in California, says it’ll build a bigger launch vehicle with the aid of a similarly huge $650 million Series E funding round.

The startup says its fully reusable, two-stage Terran R rocket will be capable of launching more than 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit. That’s 16 times the listed payload capacity of its first-generation Terran 1 rocket, which is due to make its debut this year, and roughly equal to the capability of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

“From our founding days in Y Combinator just five years ago, we planned on 3D printing Terran 1 and then Terran R – a 20X larger fully reusable rocket – on our ‘Factory of the Future’ platform,” Tim Ellis, CEO and co-founder of Relativity, said today in a news release. “Today we are one step closer to this goal.”

Relativity says the newly announced funding round will help the company scale up production of the Terran R rocket at its 3D-printing facility in Long Beach, Calif. The round was led by Fidelity Management & Research Co. with participation from investors including Baillie Gifford, funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Centricus, Coatue, K5 Global, Soroban Capital, Tiger Global, Tribe Capital, XN, Brad Buss, Mark Cuban, Jared Leto and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff’s 75 & Sunny.

The $650 million Series E round follows up on a $500 million Series D round that closed last November. Total investment to date is in excess of $1.3 billion, and the company’s valuation is said to be higher than $4 billion. Since November, Relativity’s workforce has risen from around 230 employees to more than 400, with plans to hire another 200 team members this year.

Ellis co-founded Relativity after spending years working at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent, Wash. Relativity’s other co-founder, Jordan Noone, did an internship at Blue Origin in 2013 and worked at SpaceX in 2014-2015. Last year, Noone left his position as Relativity’s chief technology officer to co-found a tech venture capital firm called Embedded Ventures.

In a 2018 interview with GeekWire, Ellis recalled that he and Noone started up Relativity in a WeWork co-working space in Seattle. “That was the first month we were there,” he said. The company soon moved to sunny California, however, and has now settled into a 120,000-square-foot headquarters and 3D-printing factory in Long Beach.

From the beginning, the idea behind Relativity was to build rockets “with zero human labor,” using low-cost metal 3D-printing technology. The process doesn’t exactly involve zero human labor, but the goal for the Terran 1 project is to produce launch-ready rockets from raw materials in less than 60 days, and then launch payloads into low Earth orbit for a price as low as $12 million.

Terran R will up the ante. ““Over the last year, we found ourselves being asked by the market to accelerate development of our larger launch vehicle, so we knew it was time to double down on our existing plans and scale the Terran R program even faster and build production capabilities at scale sooner,” Ellis said.

Terran 1 vs. Terran R
This graphic compares the size of the Terran 1 rocket (at left) with the Terran R (at right). A human figure has been added to the illustration for comparison’s sake. (Relativity Space Illustration)

Relativity’s 216-foot-tall Terran R rocket is designed with a 16-foot (5-meter) diameter and a payload fairing to match – again, roughly equivalent to the Falcon 9. The rocket also has Falcon-style grid fins for maneuvering during descent.

The main innovation is that both stages and the fairing are designed for reusability (which explains the “R” in the Terran R’s name). That includes the seven 3D-printed, 302,000-pound-thrust Aeon R rocket engines on the first stage, as well as the Aeon Vac engine for the upper stage. Relativity says 3D-printing technology makes it possible to design an upper stage that can endure the heat of re-entry.

Like the Aeon 1 engine that’s being developed for the Terran 1 rocket, the Terran R’s engines will use cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen as propellants.

The Terran R is due to blast off starting in 2024, from the same Cape Canaveral launch complex that’ll serve as the Terran 1’s home base. Relativity says that it’s finished 3D-printing more than 85% of the first Terran 1 flight article, and that it’s signed its first launch contract with an anchor customer for the Terran R.

Relativity intends the Terran R to serve as a means for deploying large satellite constellations in Earth orbit, and as a point-to-point space transport for missions to the moon and Mars.

“Relativity was founded with the mission to 3D-print entire rockets and build humanity’s industrial base on Mars,” Ellis said. “We were inspired to make this vision a reality, and believe there needs to be dozens to hundreds of companies working to build humanity’s multiplanetary future on Mars. Scalable, autonomous 3D printing is inevitably required to thrive on Mars, and Terran R is the second product step in a long-term journey Relativity is planning ahead.”

The road ahead could be challenging for Relativity, with competition from larger launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan as well as from smaller launch vehicles such as Rocket Lab’s Electron and Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne. But at least Ellis is thinking big – like Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, the space billionaires who now loom as Ellis’ rivals.

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