Relativity Space launches 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket but falls short of orbit

·5 min read
Methane-tinged blue flames blaze from the engines on Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket during liftoff from its Florida launch pad. (Relativity Space / Michael Baylor)
Methane-tinged blue flames blaze from the engines on Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket during liftoff from its Florida launch pad. (Relativity Space / Michael Baylor)

More than seven years after it was founded in a Seattle co-working space, Relativity Space launched its first 3D-printed rocket on a test mission that began with a triumphant glow but fell short of complete success.

Relativity’s two-stage, 110-foot-tall Terran 1 rocket rose from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Launch Complex 16 in Florida for a flight test dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun,” or GLHF.

The startup’s first-ever launch brought frustration as well as fun.

Liftoff was originally scheduled for March 8, but that countdown was called off 70 seconds before launch due to a malfunctioning valve in the ground equipment responsible for conditioning the rocket’s liquid-oxygen propellant.

Fixes were made, and Relativity tried again on March 11. After a string of delays and one false start, the countdown was aborted at the end of the day’s launch window when the automated launch system registered second-stage fuel pressure that was just a bit lower than the specified range. Relativity Space’s co-founder and CEO, Tim Ellis, said the launch team made “software redline tweaks” after the second scrub.

Today’s countdown was temporarily held up due to concerns about upper-level winds and a wayward boat interfering with range safety, but no technical issues were reported. Terran 1 finally made its ascent into the night sky at 11:25 p.m. ET (8:25 p.m. PT).

“Look at that blue fire!” said launch commentator Arwa Tizani Kelly, referring to the glow of rocket’s methane-tinged exhaust.

Because the primary aim of this flight was to put a completely new launch vehicle through its paces, no customer payload was placed on the rocket. Instead, a metal memento from Relativity’s first 3D-print job was flown.

The flight plan called for telemetry to be sent down from the Terran 1 as it climbed toward its planned 125-mile-high (200-kilometer-high) orbit, and then for the stages to descend back through the atmosphere.

The first stage’s main-engine cutoff and stage separation appeared to go according to plan, drawing yips of delight from the launch team. But the second stage suffered an anomaly, and the rocket fell short of reaching orbit.

“Although we didn’t reach orbit, we significantly exceeded our key objective for this first launch, and that objective was to gather data at Max-Q, one of the most demanding phases of flight, and achieve stage separation,” Tizani Kelly said. “Today’s flight data will be invaluable to our team as we look to further improve our rockets.”

Fellow launch commentator Raichelle Aniceto said the flight data would be analyzed in the days ahead to determine the cause of the anomaly.

Relativity touts Terran 1 as the world’s first 3D-printed rocket, and says its software-driven technique can produce less expensive launch vehicles in as little as 60 days. Many rockets use 3D-printed components nowadays, but Terran 1 sets a new standard because the rocket is 85% 3D-printed by mass. Metal parts, including parts for Relativity’s Aeon rocket engines, are created through additive manufacturing at the company’s production facility in Long Beach, Calif.

Terran 1’s first stage is powered by nine Aeon engines, which use liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas as propellants. The second stage has one Aeon Vac engine that’s optimized for operation in the vacuum of space.

Ellis co-founded the company in 2015 after working at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for two years. In a series of tweets sent out before the first launch attempt, he reminisced about the early days with fellow co-founder Jordan Noone in Seattle.

“Seven years ago, I co-founded Relativity Space, which feels like a lifetime ago, but is an incredibly short time frame in the scheme of things in aerospace,” Ellis wrote. “Especially starting as two people in a WeWork, truly from scratch, where we had to rally and scrap together every ounce of funding, team, facility and technology starting from absolutely nothing.”

Bezos responded to Ellis’ reminiscence with best wishes for the launch. “Can’t wait to see the whole team succeed!” he tweeted.

Relativity Space spent only a short stretch of time in Seattle before relocating in the Los Angeles area, and since then it’s raised more than $1.3 billion in funding from investors including Mark Cuban and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff. It’s also attracted more than $1.65 billion in binding launch agreements.

With more than 1,000 employees, Relativity has definitely outgrown its birthplace in a Seattle WeWork office, but it still has some employees in Seattle — in addition to its workforce at the Long Beach HQ and a rocket test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Although Terran 1 isn’t designed to be recovered, Relativity Space is already working on a larger, fully reusable rocket called the Terran R. That rocket would have a maximum payload capacity of more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms) for missions to low Earth orbit, compared with Terran 1’s capacity of 2,750 pounds (1,250 kilograms). Terran R’s first launch could come as early as 2024.

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