The rocket lifted off and separated as planned, but the upper stage appeared to ignite and then shut down, causing it to crash into the Atlantic Ocean.
A rocket made almost entirely from 3D-printed parts has made its launch debut, taking off with fanfare but failing three minutes into flight — far short of orbit.
There was nothing aboard Relativity Space’s test flight on Wednesday night, except for the company’s first metal 3D print six years ago. The startup wanted to put the souvenir in orbit 200 kilometers high for several days before it plunged through the atmosphere and burned up along with the rocket’s upper stage.
As it turned out, the first stage did its job after launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and separated as planned. But the top stage seemed to ignite and then seal, causing it to crash into the Atlantic Ocean.
It was the third launch attempt from what was once a missile site. Relativity Space came within half a second of detonation earlier this month, igniting the rocket’s engines before abruptly stopping.
Although the upper stage malfunctioned and the mission failed to reach orbit, “first launches are always exciting and today’s flight was no exception,” said Relativity Space launch commentator Arwa Tizani Kelly after Wednesday’s launch.
Most of the 33-foot-long rocket, including the engines, came from the company’s massive 3D printers in Long Beach, California.
Relativity Space said 3D-printed metal parts made up 85 percent of the rocket, dubbed Terran. Larger versions of the rocket will have even more and will also be reusable for multiple flights.
Other aerospace companies also rely on 3D printing, but the pieces make up only a small portion of their rockets.
Founded in 2015 by a pair of young aerospace engineers, Relativity Space has caught the attention of investors and venture capitalists.
Relativity is also building a larger rocket, the Terran R, which can carry a 20,000 kg payload into low Earth orbit.
The first launch of a Terran R, which is designed to be fully reusable, is scheduled for next year.
A satellite operator can wait years for a spot on an Arianespace or SpaceX rocket, and Relativity Space hopes to speed up the timeline with its 3D printed rockets.
Relativity said the 3D-printed versions use 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets and can be built from raw materials in just 60 days.
According to CEO Tim Ellis, who co-founded the company in 2015, Relativity has signed commercial launch contracts worth $1.65 billion, primarily for the Terran R.