A senior engineer has left SpaceX to work for Relativity Space

Patrick
Enlarge / Zach Dunn with the Merlin engine that powered the successful fourth flight of the Falcon 1 rocket.

Relativity Space, a California-based company pushing hard toward the inaugural flight of its Terran 1 rocket by the end of 2021, has hired a senior launch official from SpaceX. Zach Dunn, formerly Senior Vice President of Production and Launch at SpaceX, will become Vice President of Factory Development at Relativity.

In joining Relativity, Dunn will work for a company that seeks to build a rocket made almost entirely of 3D-printed parts. And if that goal were not fantastical enough, Relativity also plans to automate as much of the rocket assembly and test process as possible. That is what Dunn was hired for.

The well-capitalized startup recently announced plans to build a large 3D-printing factory in Long Beach, California. Relativity intends to start with rockets, but it also has plans to additively manufacture large objects for other industries. Dunn’s first job will be to oversee the development of this facility, said Tim Ellis, co-founder of Relativity. “We really are looking to develop the factory of the future, as its own product,” Ellis said.

With this 3D-printing facility, Relativity will attempt to print rockets with 100 times fewer parts than most rockets, all without traditional tooling. In addition to mastering additive manufacturing, the facility will likely have radically different supply chains, inventory management, software and data management, and more. Dunn has, over his career, managed most aspects of the Falcon 9 rocket’s production, so he has a good understanding of how a rocket factory works.

“He really has worn quite a lot of hats,” Ellis said of Dunn. “That’s what drew me to him. He’s got a lot of passion and has demonstrated an incredible amount of leadership and creativity in solving some of the hardest problems at SpaceX.”

Dunn played a pivotal role in the history of SpaceX. Although he missed out on the formative years of the company, after hiring on straight out of graduate school in July 2007, Dunn served as the “responsible engineer” for the Falcon 1 rocket’s first stage and Merlin engine for both the third and fourth flights of that booster. When it was undergoing a rapid depressurization during a transport flight over the Pacific Ocean in September 2008, Dunn played a pivotal role in saving the first stage of what would become the first Falcon 1 rocket to reach orbit.

A hard worker

He was viewed as an exceptionally hard worker, standing out even amid a culture at SpaceX that encouraged hard work. Dunn went on to lead development of SpaceX’s West Coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and he has served a number of senior roles at the company. Prior to leaving SpaceX, Dunn essentially oversaw the company’s Falcon 9 launch operations. The timing is not great, with the most important launch of SpaceX’s history looming on May 27, a crewed flight of the Dragon spacecraft.

Relativity co-founder Jordan Noone worked at SpaceX in 2014 and 2015, and his company has a handful of other SpaceX veterans on staff. Dunn, however, is the highest-profile employee hired directly from SpaceX. Tim Buzza, who joined Relativity as a “distinguished engineer” in February 2019, was one of SpaceX’s earliest hires and serves as Vice President of Launch for the company until 2014.

David Giger, who joined relativity at around the same time as Buzza to lead development of the Terran 1 booster, had spent more than a decade at SpaceX before leaving at the end of 2017.

“I lived and breathed SpaceX for a long time,” Giger told Ars earlier this year. “And I felt like the industry was changing. Reusable launch vehicles were the big step of the last decade. I think that printing and automation are really what the next revolution in aerospace is going to come down to.”

As for hiring Dunn directly away from SpaceX, Ellis noted that there is a fair amount of movement within the industry. Ellis has made no secret of being inspired by SpaceX’s mission to build large settlements on Mars. Relativity would like to be part of that, with 3D manufacturing facilities on the red planet. “I’d love to be a customer on Starship to ship our factory to Mars,” he said.

In response to the news being made public on Monday afternoon, SpaceX founder Elon Musk offered these gracious words for Dunn on Twitter, saying, “Zach made a significant contribution to SpaceX & is a friend. I wish him well as he tries something new.”



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