Debut launch of world’s first 3D-printed rocket called off

A new launch date has not been announced after the California-based startup Relativity cancelled the launch Wednesday.

The 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket sits on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the United States [Trevor Mahlmann/ courtesy Relativity Space]
The 3D-printed Terran1 rocket sits on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the US [Handout: Trevor Mahlmann/Relativity Space]

The debut launch of a 3D-printed rocket built by California-based startup Relativity Space was cancelled at the last minute on Wednesday. The launch was seen as a key test of the US company’s novel strategy for cutting manufacturing costs.

The 35-metre-tall (115-foot) Terran 1 rocket, 85 percent of which was fabricated from a 3D printer, was set to lift off from a United States Space Force base launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, but was cancelled about one minute before launch due to a temperature issue. The company has yet to announce a new launch date.

Josh Brost, Relativity Space’s senior vice president of revenue, had called the Terran 1 “by far the largest 3D-printed structure that’s ever been assembled” and said the launch represented an opportunity to test “a whole bunch of things all at once”.

The inaugural flight of the rocket – nicknamed GLHF for “Good Luck, Have Fun” – was not scheduled to carry a commercial payload, but would have instead carried a failed 3D-printed rocket part from a previous attempt to build a craft. The company took seven years to reach the point of preparing for a launch, and it is not clear what impact today’s scrapped launch will have on future efforts. No commercial company has succeeded in reaching orbit on the first try.

Relativity Space would also have been the first company to attempt launching a printed rocket.

The 3D-printing process, widely used in various industries, involves machines that autonomously “print” sequential layers of soft, liquid or powdered materials that are quickly hardened or fused to form solid, three-dimensional objects. Designs of the objects are scanned from digital blueprints.

Relativity Space, one of a handful of US rocket startups competing to sate the growing demand for cheap launch services, has bet on the cost savings it expects to achieve using giant, robotic 3D printers to simplify its rocket production lines. Most of its rivals have focused on lowering costs by building rockets designed to be reusable, such as the Falcon 9 boosters produced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The use of 3D printers, Brost said, allows Relativity Space to hasten much of its manufacturing processes and more easily make changes to improve the rocket’s design if necessary after it flies, eliminating the need for a complex supply chain that would otherwise slow down rocket enhancements.

While the expendable Terran 1 is built to carry 2,755 pounds (1,250 kg) of satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), waning demand for that class of launch vehicle has led Relativity Space to develop a larger, 3D-printed reusable rocket – the Terran R – that it expects to fly in 2024.

Currently driving demand are the so-called mega-constellation plans by companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb and Jeff Bezos’s Amazon to deploy tens of thousands of internet-beaming satellites to LEO in the next few years.

SpaceX flies its own heavy-lift rockets to get its Starlink network into orbit, while OneWeb and Amazon plan to use similar large rockets from various launch companies for their own satellites. OneWeb will launch its next-generation satellites on Relativity Space’s Terran R, the companies announced last year.

Relativity Space, headquartered in Long Beach, California, has roughly $1.65bn worth of launch contracts secured for both its rockets, with the bulk of that revenue attributable to the larger Terran R.

While market demand for rockets like Terran 1 has weakened, Brost said the rocket’s upcoming flights will inform how Terran R is engineered.

Asked if Relativity Space is still selling Terran 1 to customers, Brost said the company “continues to talk to people about both vehicles”.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters