Relativity CEO Tim Ellis explains his company’s Mars mission

Last week, Relativity Space and Impulse Space announced a partnership to launch the first private mission to Mars. The two startups say they will aim to launch a Red Planet lander as early as 2024.

Under the agreement, Relativity Impulse’s Mars Cruise Vehicle and Mars Lander will launch on the 3D-printed Terran R rocket from Cape Canaveral. Terran R will enter a trans-Mars injection (TMI) orbit, and once there, Impulse’s aeroshell-equipped Mars Lander will attempt a propulsive landing on the surface of Mars. The Relativity/Impulse Mars partnership will run until 2029.

The timetable for 2024-2025 deserves a good dose of skepticism. But as Ars Technica recently wrote, “this announcement — as bold as it may be — is probably worth taking seriously from the companies and players involved.”

The theory of relativity is progressing towards its first orbital launch attempt with the Terran 1 rocket. It should announce a launch date in the coming weeks, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis recently told Payload. Impulse, meanwhile, is headed by Tom Mueller, who was part of SpaceX’s founding team. The startup’s short-term focus is on last-mile delivery services in LEO, along with in-orbit service, debris removal and space station orbital preservation.

Payload spoke briefly with Ellis of Relativity to discuss the mission, scaling production at Relativity’s new 1 million square foot facility, and Terran R. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What does this partnership and deal mean, in terms of Relativity’s long-term mission?

This is our first concrete step towards establishing an industrial base on Mars, which has been our mission from day one. Relativity was created with the goal of building a multiplanetary future for humans, and this collaboration is quickly moving us toward reality.

No two Terran R launches will be the same. That said, how much different is the Mars mission with Impulse?

What makes this mission different is that it focuses on multiplanetary transport, not satellite launch services. But both types of missions require the same Terran R core capabilities. That’s why we designed Terran R to be completely reusable. It is certainly a unique challenge, but an important one that we take on with confidence.

The theory of relativity has yet to make an orbital launch attempt (although I know it’s coming soon). Worried that a Mars mission could distract the company from scaling production?

Our mission has always been Mars. So we don’t see this as a distraction – it’s about doing what we wanted to do when we started the business. To be clear, this year we’re focusing on the launch of Terran 1, the first 3D-printed rocket, because that’s paramount and will help us get on the road to Terran R and this mission.

As I’ve heard before, making the first rocket isn’t the hardest, but making the next 10. Any ideas on this?

In terms of scaling production, we are almost done printing the next Terran 1 vehicle for our NASA VCLS 2 mission, and have already started installing our new fourth generation Stargate metal 3D printers in our more than 1 million square foot factory in Long Beach dedicated to printing Terran R vehicles. We also signed five clients for Terran R, including a multi-launch agreement with OneWeb, with a total backlog of more than $1.2 billion.

How sharp are the Relativity and Impulse teams in creating the next Mars window? Obviously, a slip and then have to wait a few more years wouldn’t be ideal.

Our launch window is aggressive, but possible – and we’re confident we have a good chance of making it happen. The partnership agreement is also in an exclusive agreement until 2029, with launch windows happening every two years, so we will have multiple launch options, as well as opportunities for repeatable commercial missions to Mars, making serious business of planned payloads to the Red Planet.

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