The rocket lifted off and separated as planned, but the upper stage appeared to ignite and then shut down, sending it crashing into the Atlantic.
A rocket made almost entirely of 3D-printed parts has made its launch debut, lifting off amid fanfare but failing three minutes into flight – far short of orbit.
There was nothing on board Relativity Space’s test flight on Wednesday night except for the company’s first metal 3D print made six years ago. The startup wanted to put the souvenir into a 125-mile-high (200-kilometre-high) orbit for several days before having it plunge through the atmosphere and burn up along with the upper stage of the rocket.
As it turned out, the first stage did its job following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, and separated as planned. But the upper stage appeared to ignite and then shut down, sending it crashing into the Atlantic.
It was the third launch attempt from what once was a missile site. Relativity Space came within a half-second of blasting off earlier this month, with the rocket’s engines igniting before abruptly shutting down.
Although the upper stage malfunctioned and the mission did not reach orbit, “maiden launches are always exciting and today’s flight was no exception,” Relativity Space launch commentator Arwa Tizani Kelly said after Wednesday’s launch.
Most of the 110-foot (33-metre) rocket, including its engines, came out of the company’s huge 3D printers in Long Beach, California.
Relativity Space said 3D-printed metal parts made up 85 percent of the rocket, named Terran. Larger versions of the rocket will have even more and also be reusable for multiple flights.
Other space companies also rely on 3D printing, but the pieces make up only a small part of their rockets.
Founded in 2015 by a pair of young aerospace engineers, Relativity Space has attracted the attention of investors and venture capitalists.
Relativity is also building a larger rocket, the Terran R, capable of putting a payload of 44,000 pounds (20,000kg) into low Earth orbit.
The first launch of a Terran R, which is designed to be fully reusable, is scheduled for next year.
A satellite operator can wait for years for a spot on an Arianespace or SpaceX rocket, and Relativity Space hopes to accelerate the timeline with its 3D-printed rockets.
Relativity said its 3D-printed versions use 100 times fewer parts than traditional rockets and can be built from raw materials in just 60 days.
Relativity has signed commercial launch contracts worth $1.65bn, mostly for the Terran R, according to CEO Tim Ellis, who co-founded the company in 2015.