This little-known job in spaceflight about to become more popular

Space startups embrace 3D printing

Relativity Space Senior raw materials engineer Eliana Fu specializes in materials used for 3D printing.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – As it turns out, you can actually specialize in metal, and the job is a lot cooler than it sounds.

It's not just a study for high-end jewelers and blacksmiths, it's something that's becoming more and more popular in spaceflight thanks to the growing use of 3D printing in rocketry in space startups.

Eliana Fu is Relativity Space's senior raw material supply engineer with a background in material sciences and metallurgy, which is the study of metals.

"I'm actually a titanium person, if you want to know the details," she said at the Relativity Space headquarters in Inglewood, California.

Her expertise is put to good use at Relativity Space, a startup that aims to launch a fully 3D-printed rocket into space from Cape Canaveral starting next year. The company already has three launch contracts for low-Earth orbit payloads.

While other small satellite launch companies are also using 3D printing for parts of their spacecraft or rockets, Relativity Space is the only company planning to fully 3D print its rockets. The process reduces the hardware part count by a factor of 100, cuts down the costs of launch and a rocket can be manufactured in 60 days.

A Relativity Space robotic engineer operates Stargate, the world's largest 3D printer, on June 10, 2019 at the company's California headquarters. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

"It allows the capacity to actually be right at the site of the testing firing or flight, which is amazing," Fu said. "That will be a huge time saver and also help with productivity and understanding how we can build better structures in a shorter time frame, and what that does is it also accelerates access to space for everyone."

The materials used to build Relativity's Terran 1 rocket are readily available in large quantities on Earth. Terran means "of Earth" and is built using Relativity's massive 3D printer called Stargate. The company recently broke ground on a 3D-printing facility at NASA's Stennis Space Center.

Fu's role specifically is to determine which materials are suitable for the additive manufacturing process, meaning they can be used to 3D print rocket parts.

"3D printing is basically taking a material, which is usually solid, heating it up with some kind of heat source -- whether that's a laser, electron beam or plasma or electric arc -- and then re-solidifying it into different shapes and forms that we could never have made through traditional means," Fu said.

The new technology allows engineers to build parts efficiently using a minimum amount of materials. A few spools of aluminum alloy wire, for example, can be transformed into a small pressure vessel tank.

Fu said the implications are vast.

Relativity Space was founded in 2015 by Blue Origin and SpaceX alum, Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone, with the long-term goal of printing a rocket on Mars.

"3D printing on Mars is gonna be a bit of a different challenge because Mars has a different gravity and atmosphere than here on Earth, so there's going to be lots of work involved in trying to get that all started," Fu said.

As the space industry evolves, so does its workforce. Fu was the first ever female engineer to be hired at Relativity and she hopes to pave the way for other women to secure leadership roles.

Part of her mission is outreach, which is why she volunteers with an international organization called Women in 3D Printing that helps women and girls learn to love additive manufacturing as a career, hobby or both.

Relativity Space staff in front of a 3D printed rocket tank at the company's Inglewood, Cali. headquarters. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

So far, she's seen positive changes.

"Starting in my early career going through college and then going into industry, I've seen lots more women in roles of authority and leadership roles in the industry sector, not just in primary metals production but also in aerospace and space," Fu said. "So it is quite important that we keep encouraging people to let them know that these kinds of career opportunities are open to them."

For someone who grew up with an interest in science fiction titles such as "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica," the idea of being on the cutting edge of space technology is otherwordly for Fu. It's a feeling she hopes to share with others.

“I never imagined that I would be going to space or seeing stuff that I’ve touched or made going into space, so that’s kind of like ‘Star Trek’ science fiction-type of realm for me there, but to actually be involved in that is really amazing, so I’m really excited,” she said.