Relativity Space launches first 3D-printed rocket on historic test flight

Stevvo | 324 points

I love the Ars Technica headline: "Relativity Space has a successful failure with the debut of Terran 1"

While technically a failure, it succeeded at many difficult tasks, like Max-Q, staging and not exploding. They got lots of data back and are in good shape for a second try.

Nobody has ever successfully launched a rocket to orbit on their first try, so Relativity was not expected to either. Some rockets have have succeeded on their first try, but no companies or space agencies have. For example Falcon 9's first try was successful, but they failed 3 times on Falcon 1 before its first success.

bryanlarsen | a year ago

Watched the live stream and man, that was pretty awesome! That it passed max-q was what I was waiting for, because that lets them know that 3D printed materials are strong enough to deal with that stress, then their is no need to "rack and stack" ring sections like they do at SpaceX. Riveting and seam welding take a surprisingly long time over all! Also those joints are the most likely to fail when things get stressed.

I am still curious about the 15% that isn't 3D printed. Clearly the avionics, wiring, and carbon-fiber over wraps would not be 3D printed but is that it? Any other fittings or parts?

I am definitely looking forward to launch 2 and the root cause analysis of the second state engine startup issue.

ChuckMcM | a year ago

Huge congrats to the team that worked on this! Had the pleasure of being there to witness it and meeting many of them, both old and new employees and what a great group of engineers!

EDIT: Shameless plug I know one the cofounders Jordan Noone, and he’s brilliant.

jessfraz | a year ago

I believe this is the first big rocket to fly to space using methane, right?

With all the companies getting into it as a fuel, that blue flame is going to get pretty distinctive.

And yes, it's the exact same blue as from a natural gas stove!

mabbo | a year ago

So great to see. Interviewed with them back in June of 2017 from a job listing on HN. They were ~15 people if I recall at the time. My phone went from 50% to zero halfway through the final interview before onsite. I ran to my car to charge and called back 10 minutes later. Interview was dead. Such is life. Wild to see how far they have come but not surprised. Congratulations

mcoliver | a year ago

Even for an experienced company losing a couple of flights in the first ten with a new rocket is par for the course. For a new company to get all the way through stage separation before anything went wrong is a sort of vaguely encouraging sign.

Symmetry | a year ago

This is a massive success, congrats. I had a look on CrunchBase - founded in 2015 and they've raised a total of $1.3B, with the last round being $650m in 2021. That means it took them 8 years and $1B to reach this milestone, which is really good in space terms. Before SpaceX a single a launch would cost into the hundreds of millions of dollars and program costs well into the tens of billions. Amazing how far space flight has come.

martythemaniak | a year ago

Summarizing and adding some points:

- Relativity Space was founded in 2016. Just to compare, Blue Origin was founded in 2000. It serves as a stark example of how throwing money at something doesn't necessarily solve problems. Who would've thought in 2000 that 23 years later Blue Origin still wouldn't have reached orbit?

- SpaceX's Falcon rockets use oxygen and RP-1 (ie pure kerosene) as fuel. Starship (like the RS Terran rockets) are attempting to use methane instead of RP-1. This is incredibly complicated because RP-1 is liquid as normal temperatures and methane isn't. So instead of chilling one fuel, you have to chill both. A big reason to do this is relevant to rocket reuse. RP-1 leaves behind a soot-like residue all over the inside of the engines. This process has a name that I can't recall. Methane does not have this problem so should reduce reuse cost and turnaround time;

- The company claims they will be hopefully flying the Terran R (reusable and larger version of the Terran 1) as early as next year. I am extremely skeptical. RS hit some important milestones with this launch but ultimately did fail to reach orbit. To argue we're 12-18 months away from a newer, larger and reusable version seems beyond optimistic at best. Landing a first stage is nontrivial. I think 2-3 years is more realistic and still aggressive;

- Falcon 9 can carry ~22,000kg to LEO. The Terran-1 has a projected payload of 1250kg so even with the low launch cost, the cost per kg is uncompetitive. Remember a rocket can carry multiple payloads (eg the Starlink launches a bunch of satellites at once). Still, there might be a market for this;

- RS seems to be putting all their eggs in the Terran-R bucket, which aims to be a reusable vehicle. I don't have details on this but I assume like Falcon it'll be a reusable stage 1 that lands. I'm not sure what the projected payload and cost of this is;

- 3D printing is mentioned all the time in RS news. I'm honestly not sure why. Is this really an advantage? Rockets are big. They're made of very large components. The usual advantage of 3D printing is not in cost but in your ability to produce things that cannot be made with traditional methods. For example, newer planes like 787 do this for key components in the engines. Ultimately i don't think people care how it's made, just what the payload cost, launch lead time and potential launch volume is.

Personally I'd like to see more competition in this space so I wish them well.

jmyeet | a year ago

While I'm not convinced on the utility of 3D printing a cylinder (I think they have plans for more complicated lifting body type shapes in the future), it's great to see more players in the game!

As an aside, I'd love to know what alloy they're using. I know NASA had problems with fusion welding 2195 and had to switch to friction stir welding.

metal_am | a year ago

One of my close friends has been working here for the last few years, it's been exciting watching the journey. Congrats to everyone who made this happen.

justsocrateasin | a year ago

honestly the most impressive part of relativity space is how young their founder is.

croatiancoder | a year ago

Can anyone share a picture of what the rocket looked like on the pad, or sometime before launch?

Also how much of it was 3D printed, and which bits?

rkagerer | a year ago

Obligatory Scott Manley video on the launch and a look at the failure:

They did very well for their first launch. Most impressive.

xoxxala | a year ago

Holy sh*t. Even though it didn't work — damn that's neat.

spandrew | a year ago

Why do people try to launch random stuff into orbit

izietto | a year ago