Relativity ‘all-in’ on the Terran R rocket, shifting approach to 3D printing

  • Relativity Space is changing its strategy in an effort to speed up work on the reusable rocket it is developing.
  • It is adjusting its manufacturing approach to blend a 3D printing approach first with traditional metal bending techniques.
  • Last month, the maiden flight of Relativity’s 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket launched from Florida — but it failed to reach orbit.

Artist’s rendering of a Terran R missile launch.

relativistic space

Relativity Space has changed its strategy in an effort to speed up work on the reusable rocket it is developing, the company announced Wednesday. Most important changes: Modified manufacturing approach to blend 3D printing approach first with traditional metal bending techniques.

CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC that the company is working “everything it can” in developing its larger Terran R rocket, effectively putting the Terran 1 vehicle on hold after one launch.

“We are putting all of our energies and resources into bringing the Terran R to market as quickly as possible and then getting to a higher rate of reuse to expand launch volumes,” said Ellis.

Last month, the maiden flight of Relativity’s 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket launched from Florida — but it failed to reach orbit about three minutes into the mission. While Ellis praised the inaugural launch as a success that surpassed a number of milestones, he noted that it meant Relativity “had some decisions to make” about continuing to build and launch Terran 1 missiles.

The company is currently talking with NASA about an upcoming mission that it no longer expects to fly on Earth 1. It has already flown other customers to the Terran R.

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Although Relativity expects it to be another three years until the Terran R debuts, with a target target of 2026, the company has so far won launch deals from seven customers worth more than $1.6 billion for future flights on the rocket.

“We’ve won 100% of the commercial contracts we’ve gone into so far against other competitors,” emphasized Ellis.

Overview of the Terran R design update from April 2023.

relativistic space

Since Ellis revealed the plans for the Terran R two years ago, the missile’s design has continued to evolve. But Wednesday’s Relativity update features the most dramatic change yet, as the 3D-printing specialist incorporated aluminum alloy into rocket prototypes by machining “tank straight-section barrels” — a practice more common in space.

Relativity has made a name for itself with its 3D printing approach to rocket manufacturing, and building massive additive manufacturing machines. The company has 3D-printed about 85% of the mass of its Terran 1 rocket, and had previously planned to have that figure above 90%. Ellis declined to say what proportion of the Terran R will now be 3D printed in the company’s new “hybrid manufacturing approach,” stressing instead that the shift is to prioritize the launch schedule for the first time.

“We’re strategically using typography everywhere else to really reduce the complexity of the vehicle,” said Ellis. “We can actually take the simpler, straighter parts of the car and build it traditionally and not have a huge decrease in the amount of difficulty that has to be built.”

Ellis added, “Our long-term vision hasn’t changed… We’re still very focused on further development.”

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The company has raised more than $1.3 billion in capital to date at a valuation of $4.2 billion. And it continues to expand its presence – with a headquarters and factory in California, engine test facilities in Mississippi, and a launch site in Florida.

The Terran R is planned to be a 270-foot rocket that can launch 23,500 kilograms into low Earth orbit in a reusable mode, or up to 33,500 kilograms if the booster is not lowered for reuse. This would put the Terran R in the “heavy” side of the rocket market, and above the Falcon 9 in terms of capability.

Relativity plans to add to its existing facility in Cape Canaveral in preparation for the launch of the Terran R. The rockets will be built at its one million square foot plant in Long Beach, which it calls “The Wormhole.” Ellis estimated that Relativity would be able to produce in excess of 45 missiles per year from that facility.

Central to Ellis’ confidence in Terran R is the data and experience Relativity gained from the Terran 1 launch.

“I think there is a strong case that we proved more than any other company on that first flight,” said Ellis.

The company’s Terran 1 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 22, 2023.

John Krause / Space Relativity

The Terran R is based on technologies that flew the Relative with the Terran 1, with similarities ranging from “methalox” thrusters to software, ground infrastructure and more.

Although Terran 1 did not reach its target orbit, the rocket did reach space. Along with the Federal Aviation Administration, the company continues to investigate the cause of the problem with the rocket’s second stage. Relativism shared its initial findings: It discovered that the second-stage engine’s main valves were opening more slowly than expected, and a suspected vapor bubble in the engine’s oxygen pump appeared to also prevent it from reaching full power.

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“There’s no way to test quite as you fly,” Ellis said.

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