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Thursday, June 20, 2024

The World’s First 3D-Printed Rocket Is About to Launch

An almost entirely 3D-printed rocket is ready to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, then head for low Earth orbit.

Scheduled for a three-hour launch window that opens at 1 pm Eastern time tomorrow, the inaugural launch of Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket will constitute a major milestone for the California-based startup, and for expanding the use of 3D printing in the space industry. Relativity and similar companies envision ultimately using the technology to construct tools, spacecraft, and infrastructure while in orbit, on the moon, or on Mars—in those cases, utilizing lunar and Martian dirt for building materials.

But first, company engineers want to see how Terran 1 fares on this crucial test flight, an event the company has dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun.” “The number one goal for our rocket is to collect as much data as possible and learn as much as possible from the flight,” says senior vice president Josh Brost. He and his colleagues will be closely watching its path through the stratosphere as it reaches a trajectory point called “max q” about a minute after launch, when intense dynamic pressure will put stresses on rocket. Terran 1 is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas, and “in history, no brand-new company has had their first liquid-fueled rocket make it all the way into space on its first attempt,” Brost says. “It’s incredibly challenging.”

Despite its unconventional assembly process, the Terran 1 launch vehicle looks like any other: The two-stage rocket stands 110 feet tall and is 7.5 feet in diameter. Eighty five percent of the rocket by mass, including its major structures, were 3D-printed—only the computing system, electronics, and readily available parts like fasteners were not. (The company is shooting for 95 percent for future rockets.) Other companies have used 3D-printed parts before, but this is on another level: Relativity Space refers to Terran 1 as the world’s largest 3D-printed object.

To create the rocket stages and components, the company designed its own massive 3D printers, the biggest of which they called Stargate. The process uses a robotic arm with a printhead that extrudes an aluminum alloy. Brost says the company's next generation of 3D printers will be even larger, able to print a single element that’s 24 feet in diameter and 120 feet long.

Printing most of a rocket offers many advantages, Brost argues. Once the printer’s ready, the company can build many large, complex parts and consolidate them into one, like a big set of Lego blocks. That reduces labor costs and makes the supply chain easier to manage, he says, and will ultimately result in less expensive space hardware.

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Relativity Space wants to use Terran 1 to (comparatively) cheaply lift satellites for other companies and NASA into Earth orbit. It also plans to construct Terran R, a larger, more powerful, fully reusable rocket that the company hopes will compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has a smaller payload capacity and only reuses the rocket’s first stage. In late 2024, Relativity plans to test using Terran R to launch payloads to Mars; another startup, Impulse Space, will provide the lander.

Other companies are also exploring space-related 3D-printing applications. For example, Australia’s Fleet Space has already been producing lightweight, 3D-printed radio frequency antennas for satellites. Next year, using printers half the size of a bus, they plan to create a satellite constellation called Alpha that will be entirely 3D-printed. An advantage for 3D-printing satellites and their components is that new versions can be upgraded and built in 24 hours, without taking months to gather parts from the supply chain, says Flavia Tata Nardini, the company’s CEO.

She believes space-based 3D printing is coming next. “In my ideal future, in 10 to 15 years, I won’t have to launch satellites from here; I can build them up there,” Tata Nardini says.

Since 2016, the company Redwire (formerly named Made in Space) has been conducting a variety of experiments using 3D printers on the International Space Station. “NASA likes to say, ‘Make it, don’t take it,’ and we’ve adopted that,” says Rich Boling, a vice president at the Florida-based company. In the next couple weeks, their bioprinter will print an artificial meniscus (a piece of knee cartilage) using human cells aboard the ISS, using a process that’s easier to accomplish in microgravity than on Earth. It could eventually be used to treat injuries among US military personnel. 

Like Fleet Space, Redwire foresees a future of 3D printing in space, including using lunar regolith to make things like astronaut habitats, roads, and landing pads. Mining off-planet resources for future space manufacturing will raise some ethical questions about how those resources will be extracted and who will benefit from them. But for now, the main challenge is testing whether 3D-printed Earth materials can survive the journey to space and be used there. 

Tomorrow’s launch attempt will be the second this week. The Relativity Space team scrubbed an attempt on March 8 after detecting that the oxygen propellant in the rocket’s second stage was outside of expected temperature limits.  

If the team isn’t able to launch on Saturday, the next available launch window opens Sunday at the same time. Video from the launch attempt will be available here.

Update: Relativity Space scrubbed the March 11 launch attempt, which included two last-minute aborts, one of them immediately after briefly firing up the engines. They did not make another attempt the following day. We'll update this story when a new launch window is announced.

Update 3-23-2023 1:28 pm ET: Relativity Space successfully launched the Terran 1 rocket at 11:25 pm Eastern time on March 22. The rocket met the company's objectives and made it through ‘max q,’ though the engines on the rocket's second stage didn't ignite properly, and it didn't reach orbit.

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