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NASA’s Space Launch System in Block 1 cargo configuration. NASA illustration

THE I-10 ROCKET REGION — To Stennis and beyond

» Boeing is building the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket in New Orleans, now Relativity will build 3D printed light launch vehicles 35 miles away at Stennis Space Center, Miss.

 

An intriguing cluster is growing along the Interstate 10 corridor between Southeast Louisiana and South Mississippi. The Stennis-Michoud corridor in the near future will be where not one but two different launch vehicles will be built – one a heavy-lift rocket for NASA, and the other a commercial light rocket.

At the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in East New Orleans, Boeing is the prime contractor for the design, de- velopment, test and production of NASA’s Space Launch System. Boeing workers have been building the 212-foot tall core stage in the cavernous MAF facility. When operational, the rocket will be used to launch into orbit space vehicles carry- ing people and cargo to the moon and Mars.

Newcomer Relativity Space of Los Angeles, in an announcement June 11, said it will build its Terran 1 rockets at Stennis Space Center (SSC), in Hancock County, using its patented 3D printing technology. It will create 200 jobs and make an investment of $59 million.

Relativity said it secured an agreement with NASA and an incentive package from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) to expand facilities and infrastructure at SSC, where it is already testing the engine, Aeon 1.

The agreement with NASA includes exclusive use of 220,000 square feet within building 9101 at SSC for a nine- year lease. The agreement also includes an option to extend the lease for an additional 10 years.

The facility includes an 80-foot high bay, multiple bridge cranes, and extensive industrial infrastructure. Relativity’s partnership with the MDA is supported by a significant cost reimbursement and tax incentive package for Relativity’s employment and capital investments for advanced aerospace manufacturing and technology development in the state.

Relativity will be building out first stage assembly, engine integration and testing, and a full 3D printing and ro- botics-enabled production line at the site. The technologies developed through Relativity’s Stennis factory site are the first step toward the company’s long-term vision of 3D printing the first rocket made in Mars and expanding the human experience in space.

With this expansion at SSC, Relativity is increasing infrastructure fourfold to over 280,000 square feet of operations, production, testing, and launch facilities and is on track to reach over 350,000 square feet of space in 2019. In the past year, the company increased team size over six times from 14 to 90 employees.

“We believe this groundbreaking technology is the future of aerospace manufacturing, and we look forward to bringing this innovation to the Gulf Coast,” said Jordan Noone, CTO and co-founder of Relativity.

“This partnership will foster innovation, investment, and growth in Mississippi,” said Tobias Duschl, VP of Op- erations at Relativity. “The integration of our 3D printing rocket production and testing facilities at one site will also enable Relativity to offer greater flexibility to commercial and government entities needing faster, more frequent, and lower cost access to space.”

New kid on the block

Relativity is one of the new kids on the block. The private aerospace manufacturer was founded in 2015 by Tim Ellis and Noone. The rocket it’s developing is designed for orbital launch services. Additive manufacturing is used by Relativity because it uses less tooling and human labor.

In March 2018, Relativity Space signed a 20-year lease with NASA at SSC to test engine components and eventually test full-scale Aeon 1 engines using the E-3 test stand. That was followed in January 2019 with the announcement that Relativity won a competitive bidding process with the United States Air Force to build and operate Launch Complex 16 (LC-16 at Cape Canaveral. Plans are to launch its first rocket from the site in 2020. Relativity plans to start commercial launch service by early 2021.

Relativity has created the Stargate system, which it calls the world’s largest 3D printer of metals. It’s based on selective laser sintering, which uses laser beams to bond powdered metal, layer by layer. The company aims to 3D print at least 95 percent of its launchers, including the engines, by the end of 2020. The company plans to eventually print a complete launch vehicle within 60 days.

Terran 1 is an expendable, two-stage launch vehicle. The first stage will use nine Aeon 1 engines, while the second stage will use a single, restartable Aeon 1 engine. The maximum payload will be 2,760 pounds to low Earth orbit, or high-altitude payloads of 1,500 pounds.

Some 35 miles away, a much bigger rocket is being built for NASA by Boeing at MAF. It will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will carry much larger payloads. It will be the world’s only super heavy rocket capable of transporting astronauts to deep space with landers, habitats and the Gateway elements.

The last of four structural test articles for SLS was loaded onto NASA’s Pegasus barge at MAF on June 26 for de- livery of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank test article to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where structural testing will be performed.

The LOX tank is one of two propellant tanks in the rocket’s core stage that will produce more than 2 million pounds of thrust to help send Artemis 1, the first flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and SLS, to the Moon.

The nearly 70-foot-long test article is structurally identical to the flight ver- sion that is being built. SLS is being developed to send astronauts into deep space.

While the combination of Boeing’s SLS and Relativity’s Terran 1 does not put the Stennis-Michoud cluster on a level with some of the better-known centers that produce space vehicles, it’s nonetheless an important indication of possible future growth for the Southeast Louisiana-Southwest Mississippi portion of the Interstate 10 corridor.

– David Tortorano

Reprinted with permission of Gulf Coast Reporters League.

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