Relativity Space is retiring Terran 1 after just a single test flight to double-down on development of its next-generation Terran R rocket, which is now configured to be even larger than previously announced.
The six-year-old company is making other significant changes to Terran R: The rocket will no longer be completely reusable, but fitted with an expendable second stage. In addition, its design will rely less on additive manufacturing, the technology that Relativity is best-known for advancing and that it has touted in each of its capital raises. These changes mean that the 270-foot tall Terran R will now have a payload capacity of 23.5 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 33.5 metric tons when launched as a fully expendable vehicle.
The rocket will be propelled by 13 Aeon R engines on the first stage (instead of the originally planned seven) and a single Aeon Vac engine on the second stage. Both engines were designed in-house by Relativity. Notably, the company will now be manufacturing some parts of the vehicle, like the tank barrels, using aluminum alloy and traditional metal-bending techniques rather than via 3D printing.
While Relativity has been upfront about Terran 1 mostly functioning as a development platform to technologically pave the way for Terran R, it was assumed that the company would fly Terran 1 at least a few more times before retiring it.
In some ways, the news reveals a clear boldness: All the company’s eggs are now in a single basket. Probably the biggest bet is how the rocket redesign has pushed back the launch timeline by at least two years, to 2026 (last summer, Relativity announced a Mars mission using Terran R in 2024).
But seen in another light, Relativity is just falling in line with other launch companies that are either abandoning small launchers (like Astra) or already at work on larger vehicles to complement a rocket with flight heritage (like Rocket Lab and SpaceX).
Relativity’s pivot also makes sense giving the considerable headwinds up against the small launch market. Chief amongst these is SpaceX’s rideshare service, which lets multiple customers split the cost of a Falcon 9 launch. The unit economics of small launch are even tougher when the rocket is not reusable. The spectacular demise of Virgin Orbit this month is just the latest example of the brutality of targeting the small satellite segment of the launch market.
As of 2021, Relativity has raised at least $1.3 billion at a $4.2 billion valuation. As they are not a public company, it’s unclear how much capital the company has left to see it through Terran R’s first flight.
Relativity’s sole test of Terran 1 on March 22 concluded with an anomaly with the rocket’s second stage, which occurred roughly three minutes after lift-off. Shortly after stage separation, the second stage’s single Aeon Vac engine did not manage to reach full power, and Relativity engineers sent a command to terminate the mission.
But while the rocket did not manage to reach orbit, the launch was far from a loss; indeed, Relativity said Wednesday that it validated that “3D printed rockets are structurally viable, capable of withstanding maximum stresses during flight.” The company added that designing, manufacturing, and testing Terran 1 — and developing the requisite technologies to do so, like the company’s Stargate 3D metal printers — paved the way for work on the next vehicle.
The company said Wednesday that it would move customer contracts for the Terran 1 to the Terran R rocket, and work with NASA to get Terran R qualified for launch contracts under the agency’s Venture Class Launch Services program. Relativity will continue to build out its existing facilities at Cape Canaveral Space Force Base in Florida, where it conducted its March launch.