Relativity Space’s 3D Printed Rocket Launch Called Off


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Relativity Space’s highly awaited blast of its 3D printed rocket was scrubbed. An issue with the temperature of the propellants on the rocket’s second stage meant the launch was called off, and the company says the next attempt will be on Saturday, March 11, from 1 PM to 4 PM Eastern Time.

Terran 1 at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 16 is awaiting take-off. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

After seven years in the making, Relativity’s first 3D printed rocket was scheduled for its first demo flight to orbit. The small-lift launch vehicle Terran 1 was expected to lift off from Launch Complex 16 (LC-16) in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 8, 2023, after 1 PM. Being the company’s first orbital attempt, the Terran 1 prototype vehicle did not include a customer payload. Instead, to commemorate the first launch, nicknamed “Good Luck, Have Fun” (GLHF), Terran 1 carried a failed 3D printed rocket part from a previous attempt to build a craft.

Even though Terran 1’s final checklist was underway after 2 PM, the team announced an automated abort 80 seconds before launching. By that time, Senior Director of Test Operations Clay Walker revealed that the stage two oxygen temperatures were out of the limit and that they hoped to resume the launch once the issue was resolved. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The issue lingered on to the point where the team decided to scrub off the takeoff. According to Relativity’s latest announcement, the team is now working diligently toward the next launch window.

Plenty of debut rockets scrubbed their first launch attempt, including NASA‘s Artemis I mission and Blue Origin‘s New Shepard rocket. Considering that it’s better and safer to handle the issue on the ground rather than having any explosion risks in flight, postponing the launch will give the team enough time to ensure the propellant temperature is right.

Better safe than sorry

As a two-stage, 115-foot expendable rocket, Terran 1 is the largest 3D printed object and the first to attempt orbital flight. Working towards its goal of being 95% 3D printed, Relativity’s first Terran 1 vehicle is 85% 3D printed by mass. It did so using a proprietary metal aluminum alloy Relativity developed in-house and its massive Stargate 3D printer, which utilizes 18-foot-tall robotic arms equipped with lasers that can melt the metal wire. Stargate’s fourth-generation version is already employed and is powered by customized software, can print more complex, significantly larger metal products seven times faster than earlier-generation Stargate printers, and defies traditional printing constraints by moving horizontally instead of vertically, feeding multiple wires into a single print head. In addition, by increasing 55 times the volume capacity of Stargate third-gen printers, the new model can print objects up to 120 feet long and 24 feet wide.

Relativity Space's Stargate 4th Generation metal 3D printer Relativity Space’s Stargate 4th Generation metal 3D printer moves horizontally instead of vertically, feeding multiple wires into a single print head. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

Like its structure, all Relativity engines are 3D printed and use so-called “propellants of the future,” that is, liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid natural gas (LNG), which the company says are best for rocket propulsion and easier to eventually make on Mars – where Relativity envisions an upgraded industrial base as one of its long term goals. Terran 1 is propelled by nine Aeon engines on its first stage and one Aeon Vac on its second stage.

This milestone will be significant primarily because Terran 1’s upcoming launch will mark the world’s first entirely 3D printed rocket to go to space. In addition, GLFH will be the first lift-off from LC-16 since March 21, 1988. The site was one of four launch complexes with built-in support of Titan missile testing and previously supported 26 missions spread between Titan I, Titan II, and Pershing launch vehicles. However, after the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the U.S.S.R., LC-16 was abandoned until 2019, when the Air Force turned it over to Relativity Space.

For months, Relativity had anticipated the launch of its Terran 1, including reporting on the progress of the company’s rockets, engines, and in-house 3D printing manufacturing processes, as well as headway on Relativity’s new one-million-square-foot headquarters in Long Beach, California.

Prior to its first launch attempt, Relativity Space Co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis expressed his exhilaration over Terran 1, stating: “Hard to believe the day is nearly here to launch Terran 1, our first rocket! 7 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. Especially starting as two people in a WeWork, truly from scratch, where we had to rally and scrap together every ounce of funding, team, facilities, and technology starting from absolutely nothing. Very hard to believe, and humbling to think, that in those years our incredible team managed to do so much. We’ve built out multiple factories, test stands, and a fully operational launch site. Iterated through 4 generations of our Stargate metal 3D printers. Designed, built, tested, and soon will LAUNCH the first 3D printed rocket in the world, and the first methane-fueled rocket attempt to orbit (propellant choice of the future, especially for reusable rockets).”

Although Ellis was excited to show the world what Relativity could do, he was aware that today’s outcome could go either way. Anticipating a no-launch scenario, he said, “no matter the outcome tomorrow, we are still in the early innings of a 9-inning ballgame,” and highlighted that this launch would not singularly define the brand’s long-term success.

Relativity has also tested its Aeon R engine chamber and major components at 100% power through many tests, has built the first full engine, and continues to make significant progress on its fully reusable Terran R rocket over the past several years, not to mention the improvements on its trailblazing additive technology, which could pretty much put Relativity Space among the most successful 3D printing companies in the world. Ellis also pointed out that this highly anticipated launch will provide valuable data and insights to prepare the team for its next rockets.

To get the best view of Terran 1’s first launch, join Relativity’s livestream on YouTube.

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