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World's first 3D-printed rocket launches but fails to reach orbit in key test flight

The booster experienced an anomaly with its upper stage several minutes into its inaugural mission.
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The world’s first 3D-printed rocket made it off the launch pad Wednesday night but failed to reach orbit in a key test flight by a California-based aerospace startup.

Relativity Space’s Terran 1 booster lifted off at 11:25 p.m. ET from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Several minutes into flight, however, mission controllers reported that the rocket experienced an anomaly with its upper stage that prevented it from successfully reaching orbit. The upper stage is designed to ignite separate engines midflight to boost it into space.

The Terran 1 rocket was not carrying any cargo or satellites on its inaugural flight. Instead, the test mission, nicknamed “Good Luck, Have Fun,” was designed to allow engineers to study how the booster performs at the launch pad and throughout its journey into space.

“No one’s ever attempted to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit, and while we didn’t make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is possible,” Arwa Tizani Kelly, a test and launch technical program manager for Relativity Space, said during live commentary of the event.

Few other details about the anomaly were provided. Company officials said engineering teams will analyze data from the flight in the coming days to determine what happened with the rocket.

Relativity officials have said 3D printing could make it cheaper to build rockets and manufacture space capsules and other components for missions to the moon and beyond.

Rockets with 3D-printed parts have flown to space before, but Relativity’s booster is the first to be made almost entirely with 3D printing.

Roughly 85% of the 110-foot-tall rocket’s mass, including its nine engines, was 3D-printed, according to the company. Relativity said it's aiming for future versions to be 95% 3D-printed and fully reusable.

The Terran 1 rocket's maiden launch had been delayed several times because of technical issues with the booster. The company was forced to stand down from a first attempt this month after an issue was detected with the propellant temperature in the rocket’s second stage. A second outing on March 11 was scrubbed after two last-minute aborts occurred at the launch pad.

Relativity Space was founded in 2015 and is headquartered in Long Beach, California. The Terran 1 rocket is designed to haul up to 2,756 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Company officials have said their 3D-printed boosters will offer a relatively low-cost option to launch small commercial satellites into space.