CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A rocket made almost entirely of 3D-printed parts made its launch debut from Florida’s Space Coast on Wednesday, lifting off amid fanfare but failing three minutes into flight — far short of orbit.
There was nothing aboard Relativity Space’s test flight except for the company’s first metal 3D print made six years ago.
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The startup wanted to put the souvenir into a 125-mile-high orbit for several days before having it plunge through the atmosphere and burn up along with the upper stage of the rocket.
As it turned out, the first stage did its job following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and separated as planned. But the upper stage appeared to ignite and then shut down, sending it crashing into the Atlantic.
It was the third launch attempt from what once was a missile site. Relativity Space came within a half-second of blasting off earlier this month, with the rocket’s engines igniting before abruptly shutting down.
Although the upper stage malfunctioned and the mission did not reach orbit, “maiden launches are always exciting and today’s flight was no exception,” Relativity Space launch commentator Arwa Tizani Kelly said after Wednesday’s launch.
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Today’s launch proved Relativity’s 3D-printed rocket technologies that will enable our next vehicle, Terran R. We successfully made it through Max-Q, the highest stress state on our printed structures. This is the biggest proof point for our novel additive manufacturing approach.… pic.twitter.com/9iaFVwYoqe— Relativity Space (@relativityspace) March 23, 2023
CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood said the young company still has a long journey ahead.
“They’ve got to able to show they can build these rockets, launch them repeatedly, and get payloads to orbit,” Harwood said. “But I think they’re justified in being encouraged that the vehicle could withstand the rigors of the early phases of launch which are stressful as they’re ever going to be.”
Most of the 110-foot rocket, including its engines, came out of the company’s huge 3D printers in Long Beach, California.
Relativity Space said 3D-printed metal parts made up 85% of the rocket, named Terran. Larger versions of the rocket will have even more and also be reusable for multiple flights.
“The cool thing about 3D printing is you can build a rocket very fast and at lower costs,” Harwood said. “They’ve got to pull that off, but if they can, there are clear advantages to this system.”
Other space companies also rely on 3D printing, but the pieces make up only a small part of their rockets.
Founded in 2015 by a pair of young aerospace engineers, Relativity Space has attracted the attention of investors and venture capitalists.
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