When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he thought it had a less than 10% chance of succeeding as a business. “I just accepted that I would probably just lose everything,” he said in 2016, “but that maybe we would make some progress if we could just move the ball forward. Even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton.” SpaceX’s advancements indeed have given birth to a growing space economy and revived the manufacturing base south of Los Angeles, where the first generation of aerospace companies helped humans land on the moon. In 2020, global space-related activities generated $447 billion, with commercial work accounting for almost 80% of it. “Spending money on space actually is a way to increase the economy on Earth very, very efficiently,” says Sinéad O’Sullivan, a self-described “interplanetary economist” at Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. O’Sullivan notes, for example, that every dollar the government spends in the space industry translates to close to $50 in societal value.
Suborbital tourism has grabbed the headlines, but it has overshadowed the infrastructure being built. According to research from the VC firm Space Capital, investors poured almost $25 billion into hundreds of aerospace startups through the first nine months of 2021. This money is funding such things as small satellites that can provide high-resolution images of Earth for identifying methane leaks contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. On the ground, new methods for creating and launching the rockets that deliver those satellites into space are being engineered to be lighter, cheaper, and even portable, via 3D printing advances, which could have wide implications for all manufacturing.
The companies we feature here—ABL Space Systems, Relativity Space, and Millennium Space Systems—have clustered south of L.A. Call it the new Rocket Row, or Space Beach, as locals do. They’re working to advance production techniques as well as improve the frequency and flexibility of orbital missions. As Musk presaged, success in this realm is not guaranteed. But these companies are using space to try to improve life on Earth—and pushing the bounds of the human experience in the process.
ABL is not only building its own rocket to deliver small satellites into orbit but also has developed a launchpad that can send a rocket to space from anywhere there’s a flat patch of concrete. It’s “a launch site in a box,” says CEO Harry O’Hanley, a propulsion engineer who worked on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket before cofounding ABL. The El Segundo, California–based company’s rocket, the RS1, and its ground system can be packed into shipping containers and transported worldwide, enhancing the flexibility and speed with which it can serve customers. ABL has yet to launch its rocket, but it’s raised more than $200 million and has contracts with NASA and Lockheed Martin, which hopes to use ABL’s system for 58 launches this decade, potentially generating hundreds of millions in revenue for the four-year-old startup.
John Vasquez and his grandson Marcus work on metal forming inside a fuselage, the main body of the RS1 launch vehicle. Around 10% of ABL’s staff has a family member working with them.
The ABL launch system undergoes testing in the Mojave Desert. Upon launch, the launch stool (far right), a unique ABL technology, will lift the stage one rocket vertically and then launch it into orbit.
Mission controllers sit inside a portable ground-station trailer in the Mojave Desert. Only five ABL crew members are needed to launch a rocket.
Tim Ellis was just 25 years old when he cofounded Relativity Space, in 2015, with the idea that he could upend 60 years of building rockets by 3D-printing them. Relativity has developed what it calls its “factory of the future,” which relies upon digital engineering to construct, test, and iterate on its vehicles, and then uses 3D printing to customize them. Relativity’s first rocket, Terran 1, can be built in two months with less than 1,000 parts, compared to a traditional one, which requires two years and roughly 100,000 parts. CEO Ellis, who, while a student at USC, wrote the code for the first rocket launched by a college team, is confident that Relativity will succeed, but regardless, he says, “Somebody will be building the next great aerospace company around this approach.” Terran 1 has a demonstration flight scheduled for early 2022 and then a June launch to deliver satellites for NASA.
Stargate, built in-house, is the world’s largest metal 3D printer, capable of producing structures over 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. It uses four raw materials to print 95% of every rocket.
Stargate prints the Terran 1 fuselage, the main body of the launch vehicle. The Terran 1 is expected to have its first full launch in June 2022.
The 3D-printed aeon engine is a lightweight gas generator cycle engine with a 23,000-pound thrust, powered by what CEO Ellis calls “the rocket propellents of the future”—liquid oxygen and liquid methane.
The nose cone is one of the most complicated shapes Relativity prints and shows the advanced capabilities of the Stargate printers.
A Relativity staff member inspects a development print for Relativity's Terran R rocket. Announced in June 2021, Terran R will be Relativity's successor to the Terran 1 and is expected to be its first fully reusable—and 100% 3D-printed—rocket.
NASA estimates that there are more than 100 million pieces of space junk, the flotsam of decommissioned satellites and rockets. In November 2020, Millennium, which has been building small satellites for customers, such as the U.S. Air Force since 2001, launched an experiment to clean up debris in low Earth orbit (LEO). Eight months later, the El Segundo company, which has been pursuing more scientific and commercial missions since Boeing acquired it in 2018, removed a satellite from orbit using a 230-foot tether that pulled it toward Earth (where it burned up upon reentry into our atmosphere). As companies and governments rely more on satellites, this kind of system could reduce congestion and ensure that a broadband network, for example, works as planned. Millennium, says CEO Jason Kim, feels “that responsibility of keeping space—in this case, LEO—sustainable and safe.”
Altair Baseline Battery Assembly (ABBA) stores energy from solar panels to power satellites on orbit when there isn’t sunlight.
The satellite casing, made with an aluminum honeycomb structure that minimizes its weight and allows it to survive launch, is milled in Millennium’s machine shop.
A 3D-printed aluminum and titanium satellite proof of concept will eventually be built as Millennium flight hardware.
A Millennium worker in the optics lab uses a laser system to test a star tracker, a device that uses the stars as navigation to help determine where each satellite is pointing.
The completed Wide Field of View (WFOV) satellite is ready to be launched into geosynchronous orbit next year. The satellite will use an infrared sensor to provide data to inform the US Space Force's OPIR mission.
The satellite dish at the ground station, nicknamed “Surf” by Millennium engineers, allows operators to send commands into space, such as to direct a satellite to a specific location to take pictures of Earth.