Relativity launches world's first 3D-printed rocket from Florida, surpasses objectives

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The world's first 3D-printed rocket shot off a Relativity Space pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station late Wednesday, leaving behind a never-before-seen streak of blue flames above Florida's sky thanks to new methane-fueled engines.

After a series of countdown issues – namely boats wandering into the rocket's keep-out zone – early on, the 110-foot Terran 1 rocket blasted off from Launch Complex 16 at 11:25 p.m. EDT and flew into clear skies. Relativity teams cheered as the rocket cleared the towers, separated the first and second stages, and began firing toward a low-Earth orbit.

Despite the fact that the second stage did not achieve orbit due to what appeared to be a loss of velocity, the team surpassed the primary mission objectives. Relativity had initially hoped to just clear the tower and fly past max-Q, or the phase of flight that introduces peak physical stress on rockets. But Terran 1 made it past those milestones and pushed to stage separation, giving way to the last Aeon engine's final push to orbit.

"The key inflection in my mind is surpassing max-Q, about 80 seconds into flight," co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis said via Twitter in early March. "We have already proven on the ground what we hope to prove in-flight – that when dynamic pressures and stresses on the vehicle are highest, 3D-printed structures can withstand these forces. This will essentially prove the viability of using additive manufacturing (3D printing) tech to produce products that fly."

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The mission known as "Good Luck, Have Fun" marked the first liftoff not only for the Terran 1 line of rockets, but for Relativity as a whole. But Terran can add a few more historic notes to its resume:

  • At liftoff, it became the first methane-fueled rocket to ever launch from Cape Canaveral;

  • The first-ever nighttime flight of a methane rocket, which helped bring out the blue hue of its engine exhaust;

  • And, of course, launch of the first 3D-printed rocket in the world.

Because GLHF was a demonstration mission, there was no customer payload in the fairing. Instead, the company's first 3D-printed object – a three-pound aluminum ring – flew in its place. When it does eventually become operational and begins flying the backlog of dozens of missions awarded to Relativity, it will be able to carry up to 2,750 pounds to Earth orbit.

Using the world's largest vertical 3D printers, Relativity is able to produce rockets faster and more efficiently than traditional processes. Once the company hits a steady pace, Ellis said rockets could be produced in a matter of weeks or months versus the years it takes to produce more traditional vehicles. Terran 1 is 85% 3D printed by mass, but the company hopes to push that figure to 95% in the coming years.

Relativity Space launched the first 3D-printed rocket at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The flight was known as "Good Luck, Have Fun."
Relativity Space launched the first 3D-printed rocket at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The flight was known as "Good Luck, Have Fun." (Photo: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)

Relativity says 3D printing will be essential to long-term habitability in space and on the moon and Mars. Instead of waiting months or years for replacement parts to be shipped off to habitats, for example, astronauts will be able to print the necessary parts right there. The company's long-term goal, much like SpaceX, is to help establish human settlement on the red planet.

At the Cape's Launch Complex 40, meanwhile, SpaceX is gearing up for the Space Coast's next launch: a Falcon 9 rocket will take the company's latest batch of Starlink internet satellites to low-Earth orbit during a three-and-a-half-hour window that opens at 11:23 a.m. EDT. This 76th dedicated mission for Starlink will include a drone ship landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weather for the attempt, according to the Space Force, was last calculated at nearly 100% "go."

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: First 3D-printed rocket launches from Florida, beats expectations