Relativity Space‘s Terran 1 rocket, powered by nine Aeon 1 methane-fueled engines, had a successful liftoff on March 22, 2023, from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The test flight, dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun”, was intended to demonstrate the rocket’s 3D-printed structure’s integrity and ability to pass through the region of maximum dynamic pressure known as “Max-Q”, which it did. However, the upper stage malfunctioned, and the rocket failed to reach orbit.
The rocket’s upper stage’s single Aeon Vacuum engine ignited, but seconds after ignition, a camera on the stage showed the plume flickering, and telemetry on the company’s webcast of the launch indicated the vehicle was slowing down.
Relativity declared then an anomaly with the upper stage five minutes after liftoff, but did not disclose any additional details about the failure.
Despite the failure to reach orbit, the company expressed satisfaction with the earlier phases of the flight, which exceeded key objectives such as gathering data at Max-Q, achieving stage separation, and testing the viability of 3D Printing manufacturing technology to produce space vehicles.
According to a statement by Arwa Tizani Kelly, technical program manager for test and launch at Relativity: “Today’s flight data will be invaluable to our team as we look to further improve our rockets, including Terran R“, the larger, fully reusable launch vehicle that Relativity is developing for a first launch as soon as 2024.
Terran 1, which can place up to 1,250 kilograms into orbit, is a technology pathfinder for Terran R, with a payload capacity of about 20,000 kilograms.
Relativity had previously scrubbed its first Terran 1 launch attempt on March 8 because of a problem with ground systems that were unable to get liquid oxygen propellant in the rocket’s upper stage to the right temperature.
The company then tried again only three days later, aborting two countdowns during a three-hour window, one because of a sensor reading just 0.5 seconds before liftoff and the other because of a drop in fuel pressure in the upper stage at T-45 seconds.
Relativity was indeed able to correct those problems, but had to work around airspace limitations on the Eastern Range during the spring break busy travel season. Moving from an afternoon launch window, used for the first two launch attempts, to one at night reduced airspace conflicts.
After the successful failure of Terran 1, Relativity Space posted a statement on Twitter calling the Mission “a success” due to the rocket’s passage through Max-Q, the area of maximum dynamic pressure during its flight profile.
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
What about the future?
Despite the optimistic post-launch statement, the question remains whether Relativity Space’s Terran 1 launch was a successful failure or a failed success.
The company’s plan to skip ahead to Terran R, even if the launch failed, depending on feedback from its customers, raises questions about the feasibility and practicality of the approach. While Terran R is a much larger, fully reusable launch vehicle with a higher payload capacity, the company has yet to prove its viability and reliability.