Laurel Paxton ’10  
Lead, Propulsion Engineer at Relativity Space 

Q: What inspires you about space and how did you come to make it the focus of your career? 
A: When I was in middle school, I used to tell people that I was going to go to MIT,  I was going to be an astrophysicist, and I was going to study all of the things related to stars. I don’t really know where I got that from, but my parents thought it was really cute. My dad is a civil engineer and my mom is a doctor, so from an early age I was exposed to science and engineering. My parents also wanted me to have strong female role models—we got really invested in Star Trek Voyager. Together, my dad and I made a woodwork space project and it was then when the light bulb went off. I realized that I really love space and I really love engineering. How can I put these two together? 

Q: What was the work you did at NASA?
A: My first internship in college was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. That was amazing. It was one of the most jaw-dropping experiences that I’ve ever had because working at NASA was such a dream for me—actually being on site in a NASA center, working with real NASA engineers. The internship was in structural engineering. They were looking at how to build this component that they were going to send up and be an accompaniment to a telescope. It was an origami-like structure and they figured out a way to fold this thing up really tight, then expand it out when it actually gets to space. We were testing how you actually fold the thing up and the shape that it ends up in after it expands. In that process another light bulb went off—this might be what I’m interested in—so I came back the next summer to do specifically rocket propulsion and I got to learn what that looks like. In a practical sense, I thought this is absolutely what I was looking for the whole time. Rocket propulsion is such an incredibly challenging field, but if it wasn’t hard, I don’t think I’d be as interested in it. 

Q: What excites you about the field of rocket propulsion?
A: I like challenges that are in the confluence of different fields. With rocket propulsion you have to understand how fluids flow. You have to understand the chemistry behind what’s actually happening in the fluid flow. You have to understand how to design mechanical hardware that actually works with all of those different fluid and chemical interactions. You have to figure out the instrumentation, such as sensors, and what you need to use to actually determine what’s going on in your fluids, in your chemistry—and I think there’s also just a part of me that likes fire. I’ve never been a pyromaniac, but there’s just something inherently cool about a rocket engine firing, using conditions that push the very limit of what materials can give you, being involved in that and trying to design something that works. Trying to design something that operates with the very limits of what is possible and even trying to push the limits of what’s possible, is what I really enjoy.

Q: Your company fuses 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robotics in the building of rockets. What is the vision for this work?  
A: Our company’s first rocket product is called Terran 1, which is 90% 3D printed. We 3D print as much as possible of the rocket and that’s part of what makes our company unique, that we 3D print the structure of the rocket and the tanks that go inside the rocket. That’s never been done in the aerospace or rocket industry before. We’ll be launching for the first time this summer. We’re also starting work on our second rocket program called Terran R. The engine is basically 10 times the thrust of our current engine. We’re starting the design work on that, trying to figure out how we can leverage what we learned for this first engine into something that’s 10 times bigger, both in how you make it and how you test it. What does that look like? It’s a whole new challenge. The ultimate vision is to build a multi-planetary future. The goal is to help humankind expand to Mars, to be both a society on Earth and on Mars. One of the biggest ways that we want to do that is to figure out how to better manufacture the things that we’re going to need on Mars, as well as figure out how we get to Mars. We started with rockets because rockets are one of the hardest things that you could possibly do. If we can prove the tech for rockets, that goes a long way in both helping us not only get things to Mars, but also prove that the core technology works. 

Q: What are your primary responsibilities at Relativity Space?
A: I lead a team that is responsible for the design of all of our combustion components. I oversee all the design activities, which requires sitting down with engineers, talking about how we approach certain aspects of a design, and also as part of that, understanding what the needs are downstream for manufacturing. I also interface with the test engineers to know what they need from us. It’s a lot of responsibility and I am incredibly grateful to be a part of a startup like Relativity, because that breadth of responsibility is pretty unusual for most aerospace companies. As a startup we place a lot of trust in our people, which has allowed me to really grow a lot into my position. I get to experience many different areas of the work where most engineers at larger companies don’t get to be involved like this. I think that has made me a more broadly talented engineer. 

Q: Tell us more about how 3D printing is being used for space exploration. 
A: A lot of aerospace components are historically made with really big and fixed machines. So if you want to do a specific task, you need a specific machine for that and that machine can only do that one thing. If you need to make a change, you have to go buy a whole new machine. This is  really not going to work if you want to go to Mars. If you want to build things on Mars, you can’t have a big machine that does one single thing and doesn’t have any flexibility. By moving to 3D printing, you have all of that flexibility. You can change the size and the shape of what you want to do. You can change the material that you want to build your component with, and it gives you so much more capability. No one has ever done this with rockets. We use large robots for large-scale 3D printing. The goal is to make that autonomous, which is where a lot of the robotics work comes in, and we’re also working with a lot of manufacturing techniques. We’re figuring out how to combine this robotics technology with the manufacturing method. It has been really exciting for me because in my role, we are now starting to leverage some of the technology that we’ve developed for these larger structures into the engine program and the propulsion department, which hasn’t historically needed to use those larger scale technologies. 

Q: What will it take to get to Mars?
A: There’s still a lot of work that has to go into figuring out what it actually would look like to have human beings on Mars. Part of the goal of us pushing to develop technologies is to also get other companies interested in doing that. There’s only one other company out there, SpaceX, that is really pushing to bring humans to Mars, so we want to keep encouraging other companies to get involved because this is not something that we can just do by ourselves. We need to have a lot of other companies and people working on this problem. 

Q: What classes at College Prep prepared you for
your career?
A: When I came to College Prep, I knew that math and science was strong, but I was definitely looking for a broad exposure, which the school does really well. We read Dante’s Inferno, which was magical to read in a class setting and to dig down into the text. That was just as fulfilling to me as some of the math and science experiences. I took AP Physics and then I couldn’t get enough of Physics. I really enjoyed the mathematical aspects of physics and how you can describe, for example, this candle flame that’s sitting in front of me in mathematical terms. You can dig deeper into something that just looks so pretty and nebulous that has this real intangible structure to it. That was magical to me.

Q: What are some of your career goals in aerospace?
A: I want to lead people and I like leading teams, but I also like to stay as close to the technical work as possible. My job lets me lead more technical teams while staying close technically to the work. I’m really enjoying that now and I think I’ll be enjoying that for at least a couple years to come.

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