Relativity Space has finally launched its 3D-printed rocket after multiple scrubbed attempts, but the results are decidedly mixed. The startup's Terran 1 vehicle successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral late Wednesday, but it failed to reach orbit after the second stage engine ignited only momentarily. It's not clear what led to the failure, but Relativity is promising updates in the "coming days."
The company still characterizes the mission as an accomplishment. Terran 1 endured Max-Q (maximum dynamic pressure), the moment expected to place the most stress on the 3D-printed design. The rocket wasn't carrying a customer payload. Instead, it carried the first metal produced from Relativity's 3D printing system.
As CNN explains, the two previous launch attempts were plagued with problems. Relatively had trouble cooling propellant in time for the first liftoff, while the second was hampered by both a wayward boat and a software flaw that prompted an automatic engine cutoff shortly after ignition.
Relativity is using the expendable Terran 1 to demonstrate the viability of its 3D printing technique ahead of the reusable Terran R rocket's planned 2024 launch. The manufacturing process theoretically provides simpler, more reliable rockets that are cheaper to make and can be ready within weeks. That, in turn, could lower the costs of delivering satellites and experiments into orbit.
While this launch represents progress, there's mounting pressure to complete testing. Relativity already has contracts that include launching OneWeb satellites and Impulse Space's commercial Mars mission. There's also the simple matter of competition: rivals like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab aren't standing still, and any setbacks limit Relativity's chances to win business.