First 3D printed rocket fails shortly after launch
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First 3D printed rocket fails shortly after launch

This handout screengrab provided by Relativity Space on Wednesday, shows the first 3D printed rocket, Terran 1, taking off from Launch Complex 16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its third launch attempt. (Photo: AFP)
This handout screengrab provided by Relativity Space on Wednesday, shows the first 3D printed rocket, Terran 1, taking off from Launch Complex 16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its third launch attempt. (Photo: AFP)

Terran 1, a rocket designed and built by the company Relativity Space, suffered a failure shortly after lifting off from a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, late Wednesday night. A demonstration mission, the rocket was not carrying people or a customer payload, and no one was hurt.

The vehicle was powered by nine three-dimensional (3D) printed engines and would have been the first rocket launched into orbit using liquid methane as its fuel. During a webcast of Wednesday’s flight, the rocket rose on a column of white flame that flared blue as it shot into space.

But about four minutes into the flight, shortly after the rocket’s first stage had dropped away, Clay Walker, the launch director for Relativity Space, said on the company’s webcast that a “T-plus anomaly with stage two” had occurred, meaning there was a problem with the second stage of the rocket, which was to carry its payload to orbit.

The hosts of the company’s webcast said additional details about the problem would be announced later.

Following the success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, investors have poured money into new spaceflight companies. A number of these businesses have interplanetary ambitions, including Relativity Space, which announced last year that it would team up with another company called Impulse Space to send a private space mission to Mars, aiming to beat Musk’s company to the red planet.

But many nascent spaceflight companies experience difficulties in their early attempts to get to orbit. In January, a Virgin Orbit spacecraft failed an hour into its flight; the company has since furloughed employees. Another company, ABL Space Systems, lost its first rocket just after lift-off from a base in Alaska. And even established rocket builders lose new rockets on their first flight. This month, a new rocket built for Japan’s space agency by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which has produced rockets for decades, failed minutes into its first flight and lost the satellite it was to deploy.

Wednesday’s Relativity flight did not lose a customer’s satellite. Its only cargo was a wheel-shaped object, the first thing ever made by Relativity’s 3D printers, which was to demonstrate the rocket’s ability to carry a payload to orbit.

The flight, which the company nicknamed “Good Luck, Have Fun” or GLHF, was the company’s third launch attempt in the past two weeks. The previous two were cancelled for a range of technical issues shortly before lift-off.

During Wednesday’s launch, the company noted some of the milestones achieved by the rocket. It was the first time a 3D printed rocket had reached “max-q,” the point when the vehicle experiences the strongest stresses, and also stage separation, when the booster used for lift-off drops from the vehicle’s second stage.

World’s first 3D printed rocket launch (Video: CNET Highlights)

Relativity Space is among several new companies manufacturing and testing small-lift launch vehicles: rockets that can carry smaller payloads of around 2 tons or less, typically with a destination of low-Earth orbit.

At 110 feet tall, Terran 1 fell into this “small launch” category and is planned as a precursor for a much larger, reusable launcher, Terran R, which the company hopes to begin testing soon.

To make these rockets, Relativity Space has developed massive 3D printers in Long Beach, California, that use robotic arms to craft engines and other parts out of metal alloys that can withstand the heat and pressure of ignited rocket fuel.

Traditional manufacturing processes often slow rocket building. But 3D printers, which turn code into physical objects, allow engineers to move more quickly from design to testing. Instead of having to create a totally new part, engineers can just instruct the printers to increase the size of existing parts or modify them in other ways.

Because of this, there are many 3D printed parts in modern rockets. But Relativity Space is treating 3D printers as a one-stop shop for nearly all its rockets. Some 85% of the mass of Terran 1 was made using 3D printers, and each rocket can be crafted from nothing in 60 days.

Relativity is among several companies building rockets to launch into orbit using liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellants. In the past, most rockets have relied on hydrogen or kerosene for fuel. Methane — the primary component of liquid gas — is easier to store than hydrogen and offers better performance than kerosene. Starship, the next-generation rocket being built by SpaceX for missions to the moon and Mars, will use similar propellants.

Carissa Christensen, the founder and CEO of the space analytics firm BryceTech, noted that, of the hundreds of space startups created in recent years, only a handful have reached the launchpad. This alone sets Relativity Space apart from many other private companies racing to launch rockets. It shows “something of a proof point of the investment thesis,” Christensen said this month.

A launch attempt, whether it is successful or not, is something Christensen celebrates.

“It’s a step in a path of a complex engineered system,” she said of the Terran 1 flight. “Succeed or fail, they’ll learn something from it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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