Watch Relativity Space attempt to launch a 3D-printed rocket into orbit at 1 p.m. Eastern Time

You may soon see a milestone moment in 3D printing. Startup Relativity Space expects to launch Terran 1, heralded as the largest 3D-printed object to attempt orbital flight, at 1 p.m. Eastern. You can follow the launch of the inaugural “Good Luck Have Fun” mission in Cape Canaveral via a live stream starting at noon. The missile contains no customer payload.

Terran 1 isn’t fully 3D printed, but 85 percent of its mass is – including the structure, the nine first-stage Aeon motors, and the lone second-stage Aeon Vac motor. In combination with autonomous robotics, the construction process theoretically leads to fewer parts, a more reliable design, cheaper launches and short assembly times. Relativity claims it can build a Terran 1 in 60 days from resources, and even exclusive mission costs just now $12 million. The combination of liquefied oxygen and liquefied natural gas for propulsion also aids long-term recycling efforts. It can carry up to 1,250 kg (2,756 lbs) in low Earth orbit and 700 kg (1,543 lbs) for a high altitude mission.

Relativity is small compared to private spaceflight rivals such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), but has enjoyed rapid growth and privileged access since Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone founded it in 2016. The company had received more than $1.3 billion in funding as of June 2021. Ellis, meanwhile, was awarded a seat on the National Space Council’s Users Advisory Group in 2018. It was the fourth company to gain access to Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 16 after Blue Origin, SpaceX and ULA.

Terran 1 is an expendable missile. However, if the launch succeeds, it will pave the way for a reusable medium-weight Terran R rocket that will reach orbit no earlier than 2024. The new vehicle is poised to carry the first commercial mission to Mars (Impulse Space’s Mars Cruise Vehicle and Mars Lander) and will carry nearly 20 times the payload of Terran 1. Relativity already has contracts for other Terran R missions, including the deployment of OneWeb’s second-generation Internet satellites. Ultimately, Relativity envisions its rockets will use methane on Mars for interplanetary missions.

The challenge, of course, is that other companies are not sitting still. NASA recently selected Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket to fly science payloads to Mars, and SpaceX has long-term visions of using its Starship rocket for Mars missions. Relativity’s 3D printing can help keep costs down for potential customers, but it doesn’t necessarily help the company win business that would otherwise go to the competition.

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