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Relativity goes ‘all in’ on larger reusable rocket, shifting 3D-printing approach after first launch

Relativity Space is shifting its strategy in an attempt to accelerate work on the reusable rocket it’s developing, the company announced on Wednesday. Chief among the changes: adjusting its manufacturing approach to blend its 3D-printing-first approach with traditional metal-bending techniques.

The company is going “all in” on developing its larger Terran R rocket, CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC, effectively shelving its Terran 1 vehicle after one launch.

“We’re putting all energy and resources on getting Terran R to market as quickly as possible and then getting to a higher rate of reuse for scaling the launch volumes,” Ellis said.

Last month, the debut flight of Relativity’s 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket launched from Florida – but failed to reach orbit after an issue about three minutes into the mission. While Ellis hailed the inaugural launch as a success that passed a number of milestones, he noted that it meant Relativity “had some decisions to make” about whether to continue building and launching Terran 1 rockets.

The company is currently talking to NASA about an upcoming mission that it no longer expects to fly on Terran 1. It’s already moved other customers over to Terran R.

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

“We have won 100% of the commercial contracts we’ve gone after to date against other competitors,” Ellis emphasized.

Since Ellis unveiled plans for Terran R two years ago, the rocket’s design has continued to evolve. But Relativity’s update on Wednesday features its most dramatic change yet, with the 3D-printing specialist incorporating an aluminum alloy into the rocket’s initial models through manufacturing “tank straight-section barrels” – a practice that is more traditionally common in aerospace.

Relativity made a name for itself with its 3D-printing approach to manufacturing rockets, building massive additive manufacturing machines. The company 3D-printed about 85% of the mass of its Terran 1 rocket, and previously planned to get that number above 90%. Ellis declined to specify what percent of Terran R will now be 3D-printed in the company’s new “hybrid manufacturing approach,” emphasizing instead that the shift is to prioritize its timeline to first launch.

“We’re using printing everywhere else strategically to really reduce the vehicle complexity,” Ellis said. “We can actually take the more simple, straight sections of the vehicle and build them traditionally and not have a huge decrement to the amount of difficulty that it is to build.”

“Our long-term vision has not changed … we’re still super focused on additive development,” Ellis added.

The company has raised over $1.3 billion in capital to date at a $4.2 billion valuation. It continues to expand its footprint — with its headquarters and factory in California, engine testing facilities in Mississippi, and the launch site in Florida.

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

Relativity plans to add on to its existing facility in Cape Canaveral in preparation for Terran R launches. The rockets will be built at its 1-million-square-foot factory in Long Beach, called “The Wormhole.” Ellis estimated Relativity will be capable of producing upwards of 45 rockets a year from that facility.

Building off Terran 1
Central to Ellis’ confidence in Terran R is the data and experience that Relativity gained from Terran 1′s launch.

“I think there’s a strong argument that we proved more than any other company has in that first flight,” Ellis said.

Terran R builds upon the technologies that Relativity flew with Terran 1, with similarities ranging from its “methalox” propellants to the software, ground infrastructure and more.

Although Terran 1 did not make it to its target orbit, the rocket did reach space. Alongside the FAA, the company continues to investigate the cause of the problem with the second stage of the rocket. Relativity shared its preliminary findings: It discovered the main valves of the second stage’s engine opened more slowly than expected, and a suspected vapor bubble in the engine’s oxygen pump appears to have also kept it from reaching full power.

“There’s just no way to test exactly like you fly,” Ellis said.”

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