What started as an idea scribbled on the back of a Starbucks receipt culminated in the world’s first 3D-printed rocket reaching max q, or maximum dynamic pressure condition, Wednesday night.
After two scrubbed missions earlier this month, over 38,500 people watched via livestream as Long Beach-based Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket, which is 85% 3D-printed by mass, blasted off from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 8:25 PDT.
It reached max q—a critical point in a launch, as it signifies the moment at which the rocket is under maximum mechanical stress—at T+1:24, to the cheers of ground control.
“Terran came ready to play today,” Arwa Tizani Kelly, technical program manager for Relativity, said during a livestream when max q was achieved. “We just completed a major step in proving to the world that 3D-printed rockets are structurally viable.”
At about T+2:51, the team announced stage separation and second stage ignition. After about five minutes of flight, however, the second stage experienced an anomaly, ending the mission.
Details on the anomaly are not available, but an investigation will be conducted, the company announced.
Ahead of the launch, the livestream commentators stated that, while the company hopes to reach orbit, the main purpose of Wednesday’s mission was to prove that 3D-rocket flight is viable and to gather data for the further development of the company’s Terran R.
“Today’s flight data will be invaluable to our team as we work to further improve our rockets,” Tizani Kelly said.
Today’s mission, dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun,” would have been the first time a venture-backed space company reached orbit on its first flight attempt, according to Relativity. Other local firms, for example, took two or more attempts for a successful mission: SpaceX’s Falcon 1 took four launches to reach orbit with a dummy payload, while Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and Rocket Lab’s Electron both were successful on their second attempts, deploying 10 and three satellites to orbit, respectively.
Terran 1 also would have been the first methalox-propelled rocket to reach orbit, according to Relativity.
This was the company’s third mission attempt, with two previous launches scrubbed. The March 8 attempt was scrubbed due to fuel temperatures in the rocket’s second stage. The March 11 attempt was aborted less than one second before liftoff due to a stage separation automation issue. The team quickly recycled the rocket for a second attempt, but the mission was again scrubbed at the end of the launch window due to a low fuel pressure in the rocket’s second stage.
The Terran rocket was not carrying a customer payload. Instead, a 3-pound, 6.5-inch-diameter metal disc—the first item 3D-printed by the company—was loaded into the nose cone. The item was a failed test print.
The company’s two-stage Terran 1 rocket measures in at 115 feet tall with a diameter of 7.5 feet. Powered by nine of Relativity’s Aeon 1 engines, the rocket is designed to carry payloads of up to 3,261 pounds to a low-Earth orbit of 190 miles above the planet’s surface or nearly 2,000 pounds to a sun-synchronous orbit of 310 miles.
The second stage of Terran 1 is outfitted with one AeonVac engine.
While 3D printing is not new to the aerospace industry, having been used to quickly generate various parts for rockets, Relativity has taken the technology to the next level. The Terran 1 launched Wednesday, which was manufactured in Long Beach, was 85% 3D-printed, and the company has plans to take that up to 95%, meaning the rocket has 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets.
The remaining 5% of the rocket would be components such as wiring that don’t lend themselves to be printed.
To create the world’s largest 3D-printed object, Relativity first had to develop the world’s largest 3D printer. Dubbed Stargate, the printer is now on its fourth iteration, with the largest 4th Generation model coming online late last year. Rather than printing vertically like other 3D printers, the latest Relativity machine prints horizontally.
The older models already printed faster than the industry standard, but the 4th Generation prints 7 to 12 times faster, the company has stated. Fewer components and faster production timelines should lead to cheaper launches in the future, according to the company.
Relativity Space was founded in 2015 by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone in Los Angeles. During a pre-recorded video, Ellis recalled the duo brainstorming their space company concept on the back of a Starbucks receipt.
“3D printing is the future,” Ellis said. “I really feel so lucky that we live in a special time where we actually have the tools, the momentum and the ability as a company and as an industry leading humanity’s future in space.”
Before the rockets, the team had to revolutionize 3D printing, he noted.
“Some of the early prints look like piles of metal, so we really had to refine the technology,” Ellis said. “Those early days were a lot of hard-won battles.”
The firm joined Long Beach’s burgeoning space economy in the summer of 2020, taking up residence in a newly constructed 120,000-square-foot building in the Pacific Edge industrial park at East Burnett Street and Redondo Avenue.
One year later, however, to accommodate its growth strategy, the company signed a 16.5-year lease for the former Boeing C-17 Globemaster III assembly facility, a sprawling 93-acre site that includes a 1.1 million-square-foot hangar. The buildout of the new company headquarters is ongoing, but portions of the space are already occupied by employees and equipment.
Relativity retained its Pacific Edge facility in addition to its new headquarters.
Since moving to Long Beach, the company has grown from around 100 employees to over 1,000. The company has plans to continue growing to 1,100 employees and invest nearly $320 million by the end of the 2025 tax year..
With Wednesday’s mission under its belt, the company can move additional Terran 1 missions as well as the first launch of its Terran R rocket, expected some time next year. Relativity announced the Terran R, a larger 216-foot-long, 16-foot-wide rocket, in the summer of 2021.
Terran R is comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is the most widely utilized commercial launch vehicle on the market. Like the Falcon 9, the Terran R is designed to be reusable and is expected to be capable of carrying over 44,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. Unlike the SpaceX craft, however, the Terran R will be 3D printed like the Terran 1, which, in theory, will eventually make it a cheaper option, according to the company.
Today, the private venture-backed company has raised over $1.3 billion in capital. Despite this being only its first launch, Relativity already has dozens of contracts with the likes of NASA, the Defense Innovation Unit, OneWeb and Iridium worth more than $1.65 billion.