CEO Tim Ellis says it’s enough cash to fund Relativity through the first launch of its Terran 1 rocket in 2021.

It also sets the company apart from many of its competitors in the crowded arena of rockets dedicated to launching small satellites. The industry has dozens of startups with pitchbooks and blueprints, but very few have significant cash and factory space.

Smallsat launch companies like Relativity aren’t looking to compete directly with firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. Those outfits are focused on building large rockets that can haul spacecraft or big communications satellites to orbit.

Relativity’s rocket is part of a new sector focused on launching smallsats. The idea is to build lightweight vehicles cheaply and quickly, offering express access to orbit for payloads ranging from the size of a baseball to a kitchen refrigerator.

Few of these companies have actually sent a rocket to orbit. Ellis told CNN Business that 99% of Relativity’s resources are focused on preparing for the debut launch of Terran 1, a $10 million rocket designed to haul payloads as large as a small car into space.

A small space startup that's never launched a rocket keeps landing big contracts

Relativity’s latest funding round attracted investments from some prominent names in the venture world, including Mary Meeker, a venture capitalist who started her career as one of Wall Street’s first internet analysts; Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz;, Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff; and actor-musician Jared Leto. The company also scored new backing from the top Silicon Valley fund Y Combinator and “Shark Tank” investor Mark Cuban, both of whom have backed the startup since it began raising money in summer 2016.

The firm is building up its facilities at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, NASA’S largest rocket testing facility. Relativity also is building a factory in Los Angeles, where it plans to 3D-print launch vehicles that can be fully assembled in 60 days — an extraordinarily fast pace by aerospace standards.

Relativity says it plans to almost double the company’s footprint, from 280,000 square feet to 480,000 square feet, by the end of the year.

The firm has grown explosively since its founding in 2015 by Ellis, who worked on 3D printing at Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Jordan Noone, a propulsion engineer at Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Since then its workforce went from 14 to 110 employees, Relativity says, as it hired top execs away from other aerospace firms. Relativity is now one of only a handful of rocket ventures to have secured a launch site on Florida’s Space Coast.

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The first launch of Terran 1 could be a make-or-break moment for Relativity.

Demand for frequent and cheap launches has exploded as technology makes satellites cheaper and capable of completing more complex tasks, such as tracking crop growth and global shipments in real time. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon (AMZN) are also planning to launch constellations of thousands of smallsats into orbit to provide global internet access.
Analysts predict the market for smallsat launches is headed for a shakeout that will leave only a few companies standing. So far, US-based Rocket Lab is the only such startup to have sent satellites to orbit. Virgin Orbit, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, could debut its own smallsat launch business later this year.
Relativity says its 3D printing technology sets the company apart because its printers can be reconfigured to change rocket designs in order to quickly meet satellite companies’ needs.

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