(CNN) – Startup Relativity Space sent what it calls the “world’s first 3D-printed rocket” into space on Wednesday, blasting it high into the atmosphere. However, it suffered an engine problem after launch and failed to reach orbit.
Terran 1, a 110-foot-tall (33.5-meter) vehicle designed to carry lightweight satellites into orbital space, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Florida’s east coast just before 23 30 a.m. ET. The rocket, powered by superchilled methane and oxygen, burned a brilliant blue-green against the night sky.
After the rocket’s first stage – the lowest part of the rocket that provides initial liftoff thrust – ran out of fuel, it separated from the rocket’s upper stage. But the engine intended to propel that part seemed to ignite only briefly, leaving the rocket without enough power to reach orbit.
The mission, dubbed ‘Good luck, have fun’, featured what the company described as a prototype vehicle, with a piece of metal – the first object printed by Relativity’s massive 3D printer – as a commemorative token. It did not carry a client satellite, as will be the case for the company’s future rocket launches.
Relativity had aimed to get its rocket off the ground earlier in March, but two previous launch attempts were canceled by issues such as getting propellant in cold enough temperatures, bad weather and unsatisfactory fuel pressure.
Several setbacks encountered by the company during its March 11 attempt – including a boat entering a restricted area in the path of the rocket at sea – came late in the countdown. Another dramatic moment during this attempt ended with the rocket’s nine engines igniting – only to die moments later, leaving Terran 1 on the pad. The company said the computers automatically aborted the launch attempt due to a detected software issue.
Before Wednesday event, Relativity co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis noted in a March 7 Twitter post that he hoped to see the company’s Terran 1 rocket succeed on its first launch attempt.
“Of course, the rocket-loving engineer in me wants us to be the first privately-funded liquid propellant rocket AND the first to reach orbit on the first try. That would be truly unprecedented,” he said. -he tweeted.
But Ellis acknowledged that even watching the rocket clear the launch pad would be cause for celebration, and that running the rocket through Max Q – the moment it experiences maximum pressure during flight, about 80 seconds after liftoff – would be a ‘key inflection point.
The rocket managed to pass this milestone on Wednesday.
Since 2015, Relativity has been working on developing its first launch vehicle to gauge the success of its founding thesis – that rockets can be built quickly, cheaply and efficiently using additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing.
Most rockets today rely on 3D printed parts, but 85% of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket is made with this process.
“I started my career as a propulsion engineer working for Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, where I designed and developed rocket engines from a blank sheet of paper,” Ellis told CNN’s Kristin Fisher in an interview earlier this month. “I actually ended up doing the first metal 3D printing at Blue Origin. …I realized that instead of just printing bits and pieces of a rocket, 3D printing was really a whole new approach to manufacturing.
The company’s factory in Long Beach, Calif., is unlike its competitors. Huge 3D printing machines tucked behind large hangar doors are slowly pouring metal to form the towering airframes that make up a rocket’s main body.
There are dozens of rocket startups out there, but Relativity stood out for its ability to raise capital and attract high-profile contracts before making its first launch attempt. Still, the Terran 1 rocket that failed on its first launch attempt on Wednesday may not become the company’s flagship.
Around $1.65 billion worth of launch deals are already on the startup’s books. But those deals are “an overwhelming majority for our largest reusable Terran R rocket,” Ellis noted. Terran R is still in the early stages of development.
The company plans to use the more compact Terran 1 rocket primarily to deploy small satellites that are part of larger constellations, which may require maintenance for technology upgrades or the replacement of faulty satellites.
The largest Terran R rocket is expected to have the capacity to launch around 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms) – 16 times more mass than Terran 1 can handle – into low Earth orbit. This places Terran R in the “medium-heavy” class, which is the same category as the Falcon 9 rockets launched by SpaceX, the most prolific private launch company.
“Medium-heavy lifting is clearly where the biggest market opportunity lies for the remaining decade, with a massive shortage of launches in this payload class ongoing,” Ellis wrote on Twitter.
Relativity has the backing of top investors, such as Fidelity and BlackRock, and a valuation of more than $4 billion, according to analytics startup PitchBook.
Ellis also told CNN in February 2022 that he envisions 3D printers developed by Relativity as a potential game-changer for manufacturing in several industries, including aircraft, oil and gas refineries, wind turbines, and more.
It is not yet known when or if Relativity will attempt another Terran 1 launch.
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