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Building rockets with “zero human labor”

Student’s work on a space startup may lead to faster rocket manufacturing.

By Kathryn M. O'Neill  |  March 3, 2017

Sky-2017

Relativity Space has its sights set on an interplanetary future.

Rocket engineer John Rising has no doubt that humans will colonize other planets. And, with a little help from MIT Sloan, he is working to make that happen.

Rising is the lead for vehicle systems at the rocket startup Relativity Space, a company so steeped in secrecy that even its own website offers few details about what the business does.

“We’re building orbital rockets with zero human labor,” Rising said. “It’s by far the most exciting concept I think [that] is going on in commercial spaceflight right now.”

2017-Rising-4 John Rising

Rising cannot share a lot of details about what the company is doing, but he does say that it is developing a lean, automated manufacturing system designed to greatly speed up rocket production. “One of the big challenges in the rocket launch industry is that it can take years to build a rocket, whereas we are building a vehicle in a completely reimagined way that will allow us to produce it … significantly faster, on the order of weeks … and this gives us a competitive advantage,” Rising said.

Interplanetary existence
Relativity Space has its sights firmly set on an interplanetary future. “In the long term, as a company, we believe off-planet manufacturing will require many of the methods and tools we’re developing,” Rising said. “That’s where we see ourselves in the grand story of spaceflight.”

A former spaceship propulsion performance engineer at commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, Rising came to MIT Sloan to gain a broader perspective on the challenges his industry faces. He chose System Design and Management, a master’s program offered jointly by MIT Sloan and MIT’s School of Engineering, because the program takes a holistic approach to solving complex problems.

Since System Design and Management primarily enrolls midcareer professionals, Rising said he has been learning a lot from his fellow students. “I’m one of the younger guys, so their insights from a broad range of industries has been extremely valuable,” he said. “In dealing with big challenges, the more perspectives you get, the better.”

While studying engineering at the University of Southern California, Rising joined the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, a student group that designs and builds rockets, and that is where he found his calling. “I was already in love with space but fell in love with rockets there and decided to pursue it as a career,” he said.

Upon graduation in 2014, Rising went to work on the development of the hybrid rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo at Virgin Galactic. He was planning to come to MIT full-time when Relativity Space’s cofounders — whom he knew from the Rocket Propulsion Lab — invited him to join their company. Excited by the opportunity, Rising chose to do both. He now works at Relativity in Los Angeles while attending System Design and Management at a distance part time.

Will Rising be heading to space himself one day? “I would love to have that experience,” he said. “But I’m also afraid of heights.”

MIT’s second annual New Space Age Conference will take place Saturday, March 11 at the MIT Samberg Conference Center.