The world’s first 3D-printed rocket didn’t gain its wings on its first launch late Wednesday, March 22, but it did hit some big milestones.
The Relativity Space Rocket, called Earthman 1lifted off from Launch Complex 16 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 8:25 p.m. EST (0025 GMT March 23), the kickoff of a test flight titled “Good Luck, Have Fun” (GLHF).
Terran 1 worked fine initially. For example, it survived Max-Q – the part of flight during which structural loads are highest on a rocket – and its first and second stages separated successfully. But something went wrong soon after, about three minutes into the flight, and the upper stage failed to reach orbit.
“No one has ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit, and while we didn’t go all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that the flight of 3D-printed rockets is viable,” said Arwa Tizani Kelly of Relativity Space. said during the company’s launch webcast Wednesday night.
“We have just taken a major step in proving to the world that 3D printed rockets are structurally viable,” she added.
Video: Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis talks about 3D printed rockets and the future
Indeed, Relativity Space is probably celebrating right now. Rockets rarely perform perfectly on their very first liftoff, after all; The new Japan The H3 rocket failed on its first flight earlier this month, for example. And Relativity Space co-founder Tim Ellis said before launch that going through Max-Q was “the key inflection” for the GLHF mission.
“This will essentially prove the viability of using additive manufacturing technology to produce products that fly. We have already done this effectively in ground tests, pushing and pushing well above this maximum stress with success. on both stages in a worst-case simulated flight environment, and have tested over 12,000 seconds of engine fires across dozens of articles – so I think we’ve done that before, but in theft, of course, is the most visceral evidence”, Ellis tweeted on March 7 (opens in a new tab).
Space of relativity, which Ellis and his colleagues blue origin alum Jordan Noone founded in 2016, aims to launch relatively small payloads with the two-stage Terran 1. The 110-foot-tall (33-meter) rocket is capable of delivering up to 2,756 pounds (1,250 kilograms) into low Earth orbit (LEO), according to the space of relativity (opens in a new tab)which sells Terran 1 launches for $12 million each.
But the rocket wasn’t carrying an operational payload on GLHF — just a 3D-printed ring that serves as a keepsake. (That first Terran 1 rocket was about 85% 3D-printed material by mass, but the company aims to increase that number to about 95% on future vehicles.)
Relativity Space will build on the GLHF milestones, if all goes to plan. The company has already signed customer launch deals worth $1.65 billion.
Some of that money booked Terran 1 flights, but the vast majority, Ellis said in another tweet from March 7 (opens in a new tab)is intended for launches of the Terran R. This latest rocket is a bigger, more powerful and reusable vehicle that Relativity Space plans to start flying as soon as next year.
The 216 feet high (66 m) Terran R, which is also built via 3D printing, will be able to lift up to 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) at LEO. The rocket’s development will be significantly aided by GLHF, according to Relativity Space.
“Terran 1 serves as a pathfinder and development platform on our path to producing Terran R,” company representatives said in a pre-launch email to Space.com. “Terran 1 has served us extremely well in this capacity up until our first launch, and we anticipate other key learnings to come from launch day as well.”
Relativity Space aimed to write history in multiple ways on GLHF. Terran 1 is powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen, for example, and it attempted to become the first “methalox” rocket to reach orbit (besides the first 3D-printed vehicle to do so).
The methox combo is favored by March exploration advocates, as methane and oxygen can be obtained locally on the Red Planet. For example, SpaceX’s next-gen giant Spatialship vehicle, which Elon Musk believes it can make the colonization of Mars economically feasible, is also a methox rocket.
Wednesday’s launch was Relativity Space’s third attempt on a first liftoff for Terran 1. An attempt on March 8 was cleaned due to fuel temperature issues in the upper stage of the rocket, and another on March 11 was foiled by weather conditions and security delays and two separate dropouts.
Space.com editor Elizabeth Howell contributed to this story.
Mike Wall is the author of “Over there (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or Facebook (opens in a new tab).