With just over a minute to go before liftoff, a California aerospace startup opted to stand down from launching the world’s first 3D-printed rocket on its inaugural test flight.
Relativity Space was set to launch its Terran 1 booster Wednesday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, but technical difficulties at the launchpad forced the company to call off the attempt.
The test flight was being closely watched because, if successful, it would represent a milestone for the space industry. While 3D-printed components have flown on rockets before, Relativity’s booster is the first to be made almost entirely with 3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing.
Company officials have said the 3D-printing manufacturing process could make it cheaper to build rockets, providing a competitive advantage in a market that has seen a flurry of activity in recent years and is projected to grow into a trillion-dollar industry.
It’s not yet known what issues were encountered Wednesday, but at several points within a three-hour launch window that opened at 1 p.m. ET, company officials said they needed more time to ensure that the rocket’s propellant hit the right temperature for liftoff.
Relativity has not yet announced a new launch date and time, but company officials said details will be disclosed soon on Twitter.
The test flight, nicknamed “Good Luck, Have Fun,” is designed to evaluate the rocket as it travels into low-Earth orbit. The booster will not be carrying cargo or any satellites on its inaugural flight, according to Relativity. Rather, the company will be looking to see how the 3D-printed rocket holds up under real launch conditions — and if it can actually make it to space.
Ahead of this week's attempt, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis said the flight will be a valuable learning opportunity.
“No matter the outcome tomorrow, we are still in the early innings of a 9-inning ballgame,” Ellis tweeted Tuesday. “This launch won’t singularly define our long-term success.”
The two-stage Terran 1 rocket stands 110 feet tall. Roughly 85% of the booster’s mass was 3D printed, including the rocket’s structure and engines. Company officials have said their goal is for future versions to be 95% 3D printed. The aerospace firm is also aiming to make its rockets fully reusable in the future.
If the test flight is successful, Relativity’s booster will also be the world’s first methane-fueled rocket to reach orbit. Terran 1 burns a mix of methane and liquid oxygen to produce thrust.
Methane is thought to be a more efficient and higher-performing rocket fuel compared to standard options such as kerosene. It’s also seen as a lower-cost alternative because burned methane does not coat engines with residue in the same way as kerosene, which means reusable rockets would require less maintenance between launches.
Yet, no company or space agency to date has successfully launched a methane-fueled rocket into space. A Chinese company attempted to in December 2022, but the booster failed before reaching orbit and all of its onboard satellites were lost.
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.