Highly anticipated 3D-printed rocket launched successfully, but failed to reach orbit

California-based aerospace startup, Relativity Space, has been striving to launch its spacecraft since early March.

Third time’s the charm – sort of. 

Aerospace startup Relativity Space completed the third launch attempt of its 3D-printed rocket Wednesday evening, but failed to reach orbit after an engine failure.

Terran 1 launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at around 11:30 p.m. But just three minutes into the launch, the rocket’s second stage engine shut down too soon, leaving it without enough power to reach orbit.

Clay Walker, launch director for Relativity Space, told CNBC that there appeared to be an “anomaly” with the rocket’s upper stage, and that the company is reviewing flight data and will release updates in the coming days.

California-based Relativity has been striving to launch its spacecraft since early March. Issues with fuel pressure, coupled with Inclement weather and frigid temperatures, hitched the first attempt on March 8. 

And on the company’s second attempt on March 11, things went awry: a boat crossed into restricted waterways within the rocket’s path with just seconds left in the launch countdown. 

Moments later, all nine of the rocket’s engines shut off unexpectedly – which Relative later announced were computers automatically aborting the mission because a software issue was detected.

But despite Teran 1 not reaching orbit as initially planned, the mission was still a success for the company.

In a March 7 Twitter thread, Relativity Space co-founder Tim Ellis tweeted that the spacecraft’s ability to successfully pass through Max-Q, also known as the point of maximum atmospheric pressure, within the first 80 seconds of liftoff, was a “key inflection in [his] mind.”

Teran 1 successfully achieved this in its debut launch. 

“We have already proven on the ground what we hope to prove in-flight – that when dynamic pressures and stresses on the vehicle are highest, 3D printed structures can withstand these forces,” Ellis tweeted. “This will essentially prove the viability of using additive manufacturing tech to produce products that fly.”

The “world’s first 3D-printed rocket,” as Relativity calls it, is made up almost entirely out of additive parts. The 110-foot launch vehicle has 10 Aeon engines: nine powering the lower first stage and a single one powering the upper second stage – all of which have been printed, and run on a mixture of liquid oxygen and natural gas.

The use of additive manufacturing to build spacecraft, the company wrote on its website, could not only help minimize reliance on an already burdened supply chain, but also reduce the overall amount of needed parts and the time needed to build the vehicle itself.

According to Relativity Space’s website, the Teran 1 and Teran R rockets can be 3D-printed from raw materials in just 60 days, and use up to 100x fewer parts per rocket.

Relativity, which burgeoned in 2015 in an industry firm-handed by billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos, has secured more than $1 billion in venture capital, proved its concept with Wednesday’s launch.

“This is the biggest proof point for our novel additive manufacturing approach. Today is a huge win, with many historic firsts,” the company wrote in a tweet following the launch. “We also progressed through Main Engine Cutoff and Stage Separation. We will assess flight data and provide public updates over the coming days.”

In February, Ellis told CNBC that Relativity Space was already working on Teran 1’s successor, Teran R, which is anticipated to rival competitor SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Relativity has not announced if or when they will hold another Teran 1 launch.