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Relativity ends Terran-1, will move to developing more powerful Terran-R

According to Tim Ellis, the head of the rocket company Relativity, it has decided to end any further work on its small test rocket, Terran-1 following its first failed launch and shift all work to developing its more powerful Terran-R rocket.

The company feels good about the data collected from the flight, as Terran 1 made it further into space than the debut launches from a majority of small rocket companies. It also validated the company’s test and launch program, he said, and its approach to 3D printing large parts of a rocket. “Terran 1 was always meant to develop technologies that were pushing the bounds for what was needed for Terran R,” Ellis said.

But now, it’s time to move on. Relativity Space is negotiating with NASA to move the one existing commercial launch on Terran 1—the Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 mission—onto another rocket, possibly the Terran R. In other words, there will be no more Terran 1 launches.

Ellis also described some major changes in the design of Terran-R. The company will no longer attempt to make the second stage reusable, it will no longer 3D-print its entire structure, its first stage will be more powerful and will be flown and reusable like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, and its first launch will be pushed back from 2024 to 2026.

This decision means that Relativity will not become an operational and competitive rocket company for another three years, at the soonest. However, should it succeed in achieving these new plans for Terran-R, it will have a rocket that can directly compete with SpaceX, while beating out anything either ULA or Blue Origin can at this time offer. For example, the rocket will be able to put from 23 to 33 tons into low Earth orbit, which is more than the Falcon 9 (20 tons) and not much less than the Falcon Heavy (50 tons), and generally better than Vulcan (27 tons). As noted at the link:

[T]he US government (as well as commercial satellite customers) would very much like a second company to step forward and challenge SpaceX on innovation, price, and reliability. Ellis correctly sees that this lane remains open with questions about Vulcan’s long-term future, Blue Origin’s slow movement on New Glenn, and Rocket Lab’s focus on a smaller medium-lift rocket, Neutron.

Whether this new strategy will work depends entirely on whether Relativity can deliver by 2026. If it does so, it will very likely beat Blue Origin into orbit, and be chosen by the military to replace it as one of the Pentagon’s launch providers. It will also make ULA’s position more vulnerable, because Vulcan will no longer be the only other option, and it will likely not be able to compete with the prices offered by SpaceX and Relativity.

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  • Richard M

    Hi Bob,

    It will also make ULA’s position more vulnerable, because Vulcan will no longer be the only other option, and it will likely not be able to compete with the prices offered by SpaceX and Relativity.

    Someone brought that up in Berger’s combox under the story. And he replied:

    “Vulcan has a big advantage in its powerful Centaur upper stage. I don’t think Terran R, even fully expendable, can hit all of the DOD reference orbits. Ellis was a little cagey when I asked him about that.”

    This is an interesting point. That said, if the Centaur V’s advantage to high energy orbits is not big enough, it may not be enough to save ULA’s business, especially if the Space Force continues to move toward more parceled out launch procurement.

    But it will be interesting to watch play out. It is wonderful to have SpaceX; it will be even better if we can get two or three SpaceX’s. Competition makes everyone better.

  • Joe

    I get moving on after a partial launch but this makes it harder to acquire space on other providers. The payload demand is so high right now that if you want to send something up quickly (rapid response) it isn’t happening. There needs to be more capacity. This slows that down by two years. Fun.

  • Richard M

    Hi Joe,

    Well, in fairness, I think most of the industry though that 2024 was optimistic for first launch of Terran R anyway.

    Still, they would be well advised to get to the gate as fast as they can manage.

  • Joe’s complaint I think stems from the failure so far of any of these new smallsat rocket companies to reach orbit and begin operations. All have been promising to do so for several years, and all instead keep pushing back their launches.

  • Richard M

    Hi Bob,

    Yeah, I grok that.

    But I suppose I see Relativity being in a somewhat better situation. So far, they’ve raised 1.3 billion, are valued at 4.2b, and have 1.6b in launch contracts; and there is some evidence they have room to raise more. I think they stand a better chance than your Virgin Orbits and Astras to go without a major revenue stream for a few more years if they need to.

    There’s also a sense that these moves were taken precisely to reassure their investors (who almost certainly knew already that 2024 was not going to happen anyway). Each of these shifts is clearly aimed at getting a viable launcher to the pad as quickly as possible, for the market where the most action is going to be. It does not guarantee that they will *succeed*, but their chances look better than they did yesterday, I think.

    Cutting back on the 3D printing and the reusable second stage does pull away some of the hype factor they’ve successfully used to raise money. Then again, I have no idea what else they are pursuing with their 3D printers, so it’s possible they could have other things in the hopper to supply the deficit. Time will tell!

    I do hope they succeed, though, because the whole point of a competitive launch market is that there’s actually competition. And right now, SpaceX doesn’t really have any.

  • Ray Van Dune

    SpaceX may well be wanting to phase out Falcon 9/H before anyone else is really ready to shoulder the load, and the military at least may be able to demand that SpaceX continue to fly F9/H beyond when they really would like to retire it!

  • Richard M

    Hello Ray,

    Actually, the even more urgent use case for Falcon is that it’s the only way to get NASA’ s only current ride to orbit, Dragon. Starliner becoming operational won’t change this picture much.

    For this reason, more than any other, Falcon 9 will keep flying until 2030, whether Elon likes it or not.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “I get moving on after a partial launch but this makes it harder to acquire space on other providers. The payload demand is so high right now that if you want to send something up quickly (rapid response) it isn’t happening. There needs to be more capacity.

    I, too, am disappointed that Relativity is abandoning the Terran 1. I have seen evidence of a high demand for smallsat launches. Three years is a long time for Relativity to stay solvent without a revenue stream, and I hope they make it. So, this is two smallsat launchers down, so far this year. I hope that the other burgeoning companies are able to stay in business and that the new companies that are trying for their first launches make those, too.

    I like small satellites, because I believe that a satellite should not be any larger than it needs to be. Some large satellites are that size because they are doing a large number of things simultaneously. This can be handy when the idea is to have coordination, but it also means risking interferences between payloads. Some communication satellites are large, because they need large solar arrays to broadcast all that power, and they need large radiators, because the amplifiers have limited efficiency. But there is plenty to do in space with a cubesat.

    Who would have thunk that it would still be hard for a smallsat to get a ride to space?

  • Edward

    From the article:

    The second stage will now be expendable, at least for several years, because it does not make economic sense to fly these stages back, Ellis said. The mass penalty in terms of propellant was just too high. One day the company may fly a fully reusable vehicle.

    I disagree with the assumption that “the mass penalty in terms of propellant [is] just too high.” This was the thought about booster stages before Blue Origin and SpaceX discovered that it is economically feasible to fly these stages back. Starship shows that upper stages can also be returned and reflown. For both stages, there is a weight penalty. Even Ellis thinks that “one day the company may fly a fully reusable vehicle,” but for now they don’t have the funding to spend the time is takes to make their upper stage reusable. There are economical advantages to reusing these stages despite the reduced capacity of the overall rocket.

    First, the cost of building a new rocket for each launch. When a rocket can be used ten times, the cost of construction is reduced to 10% per launch, and if it can be used 100 times, that cost goes down to 1%. This is what is meant by the comparison of launching a rocket being similar to flying a plane from Los Angeles to New York only to throw away the plane at the end of the flight; the cost of each ticket would be so high that almost no one would be able to afford to fly. We have seen that same effect with rockets for the first half century of orbital flight. Only government and the very lucrative industry of communication satellites could really afford to get to orbit. Now that SpaceX has brought down the price of going to orbit, many other industries are finding that they, too, can start making money in space. Some others flew as secondary payloads, which brought down the cost of launch for that payload but came with drawbacks, limitations, and disadvantages.

    Second, having the booster available for another flight allows for more frequent flights. The manufacture rate of a rocket is no longer the limiting factor for the launch cadence. Falcon 9 wouldn’t have reached 60 flights last year if one had to be built for each flight. Last year, SpaceX launched 61 times but did not have to build 61 boosters, though it did have to build 61 upper stages and 61 or so Merlin engines. The Falcon 9’s launch cadence is limited by the company’s ability to build upper stages.

    With Starship, the upper stage is able to fly back practically because fairings are not jettisoned. The nosecone is carried into orbit, at a weight penalty, so that it can help protect the ship during reentry. This is a mass penalty in addition to the propellant mass penalty.

    In the past, I have compared Super Heavy/Starship to the Saturn V, both of which carry 100 tons to orbit. I have suggested that someone could find better efficiencies for a competing super heavy launch vehicle, because the Saturn V had half the thrust of SpaceX’s Super Heavy. Surely, with the additional thrust Starship should be able to carry more into orbit than the Saturn V could. In a way, Starship does, but some of it is the weight of the nosecone, landing propellant, landing legs, control fins, heat shield, and a few other things. It is a small penalty for dramatically reducing the cost to reach orbit.

    However, Starship makes several trade-offs and compromises that other companies could certainly improve upon, so as cheap as Starship is expected to be, some company should be able to make a launch vehicle that is even less expensive per pound delivered to orbit.

    It would be more difficult to make small-lift launch vehicles reusable. The rocket would have to be larger than an expendable, and it would carry less than expendable rockets of similar size. However, SpaceX has shown that the cost per pound taken to orbit can be greatly reduced, and that price to get to orbit is far more important than the total capacity to orbit. With the Falcon, the price charged is around $2,000 per pound, which has allowed many more companies to produce affordable space products. Starship could further reduce this price to around $100 and should allow the cost of space-made materials to be much more affordable to use here on Earth. Ten years ago, I thought $100 per pound was a wet dream, because for half a century the cost to low Earth orbit has been rather constant at around $10,000, and dropping this by 99% seemed impossible.

    Commercializing space, taking government out of the gatekeeper role, allows a greater range of people to do things in space. For two-thirds of a century, government has controlled who got to go to space and what they could do there. Government had limited resources for doing things there, such as the six or fewer annual Space Shuttle flights or the six people on the ISS. Because there were such limited resources, and because government ran things and didn’t want to favor one company over others, most of what was done in space was basic research and very little was practical immediate benefit to us Earthlings. The most beneficial product was easier communications using commercial communication satellites. Now that commercial companies are taking control of access to space, and now that they are bringing down the price of that access, we are just beginning to see additional benefits coming from space.

    Commercializing space has shown us how much more efficient we can be and how much more we can do that was not done under governmental control of space. Government is limiting. Commercialism is freeing. When we let government be in control of space, all we got was what government wanted. Now that we are taking control of space, we are beginning to get what we want.

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