3D-Printed Rocket Doesn't Make Orbit but Is 'a Major Step'

Terran 1 is on track to prove its viability, Relativity Space says
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 8, 2023 8:07 AM CST
Updated Mar 23, 2023 4:20 PM CDT
UPDATE Mar 23, 2023 4:20 PM CDT

Everything looked good for the first three minutes of the Terran 1 launch Wednesday night from Cape Canaveral. The 3D-printed rocket's first and second stages separated successfully, Space.com reports, before it failed to reach orbit. Still, the test flight was "a major step," Relativity Space officials said; it survived the stress of Max-Q, for one thing. "No one's ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit, and, while we didn't make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is viable," said Arwa Tizani Kelly. It's not unusual for any kind of rocket to have problems on its first flight, per Space.com

Mar 8, 2023 8:07 AM CST

Those tuning in to Wednesday's scheduled launch of Relativity Space's Terran 1 rocket will either see history in the making or a big explosion. This is the debut flight for the expendable 110-foot, methane-fueled rocket, with 85% of its mass built through 3D printing, and the first time Relativity Space has tried to launch into space since its founding in 2015, per Quartz. If all goes well, it will be the first private company to reach space on its debut flight. Relativity Space will air live video of the launch from Cape Canaveral, scheduled for 1pm-4pm EST—"a gutsy move, given the record of the company's predecessors and rivals," including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra, Firefly, and ABL Space Systems, per Quartz. Even SpaceX's first three launches failed.

With this mission, dubbed GLHF, or "Good Luck, Have Fun," the company hopes to prove the 3D-printed rocket can hold up to the pressures of space flight, the engines and plumbing work as expected, and the ground systems can keep the rocket safe and steady up to launch time, a senior vice president at the company tells Quartz. Though ground testing has already been completed at max stress levels, passing Max-Q, "the point where the structural loads on the vehicle are the highest," would "effectively demonstrate that 3D-printed rockets are structurally viable," the company tells Space.com. But reaching low Earth orbit "would be a total home run" and a world first for a "methalox" rocket, using methane as a propellant and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer.

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Relativity Space does have a backup plan. The company is working on the larger and reusable Terran R rocket, poised as a "competitor for SpaceX's Falcon series of rockets," per Quartz. The 216-foot Terran R could launch as soon as 2024. "Terran 1 serves as a pathfinder and development platform on our path to Terran R production," the company says, per Space.com. "Terran 1 has served us exceedingly well in this capacity leading up to our first launch, and we anticipate additional key learning will come from launch day as well." Relativity Space hopes to build future rockets with 95% of mass coming from 3D printing, per Space.com. It's also planning the first private mission to Mars and hopes to someday build a Martian factory. (More rocket stories.)

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