With the announcement of a $650 million Series E funding round, launch startup Relativity Space revealed plans to build a fully reusable 3D printed launch vehicle.
The Terran R is a fully reusable two-stage 3D printed rocket that Relativity Space says is capable of deploying 20,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In a promotional video, the launch startup claims the design of the rocket was “inspired by nature.” If nature is over the shoulder of a SpaceX Starship engineer then sure, I’ll buy that.
The fully stainless steel rocket is powered by six 3D printed methalox engines. The Terran R’s first and second stages feature distinctive fins that will likely be utilised to stabilise the rocket during reentry. The booster also features grid fins for stabilisation during propulsive landings. To put it plainly, it appears that someone shrunk the Starship design and made a few small changes to make sure it didn’t look like they’d copied their classmate’s work.
The design is not the only aspect that the Terran R project seems to have in common with the endeavors of Relativity’s more established competitor.
In a press release for the announcement of its Series E funding round, Relativity Space stated that the Terran R represents a “leap towards Relativity’s mission to build humanity’s multi-planetary future, eventually offering customers a point-to-point space freighter capable of missions between Earth, Moon, and Mars.”
Now, SpaceX doesn’t have a monopoly on attempting to make humanity multi-planetary. However, it has been a core principle of the company even before its founding.
Prior to starting his launch company in 2002, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk attempted to launch a greenhouse to Mars aboard a retrofitted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. The mission was designed to inspire the public to put pressure on NASA to ramp up its efforts to land humans on Mars. Ultimately Russian officials didn’t take Musk’s plans seriously, a decision they are likely regretting to this day.
Although this diatribe is mostly good-natured, Relativity’s efforts with the Terran R do warrant some scrutiny. It might be that there is no coincidence that when SpaceX and Relativity Space sat down to create a fully reusable launch vehicle they arrived at the same design. This may be the singularly ideal solution to that problem. This may very well be the case. But I don’t think it is.