NASA's pinned its hopes of a return to the moon on SpaceX's Starship. But the entire enterprise just hit a snag.
CEO Elon Musk isn't happy with the ostensibly slow progress of SpaceX in developing the Raptor engines needed to propel its Starship prototype spacecraft, according to a company email initially obtained and reported by Space Explored.
And it could be serious.
Elon Musk's SpaceX faces serious new issues with Starship development
In the email, Musk said his firm faced a difficult situation in the wake of Thanksgiving. "The Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago," wrote the SpaceX CEO in his email, according to CNBC. "We face a genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year." Starship is a colossally ambitious investment for SpaceX, as a giant rocket designed to carry humans to the moon and Mars. The firm has tested many prototypes from its south Texas facility, with several test flights, including successful landings (one of which exploded shortly after). But if Musk and his company are going to move forward with orbital flights, the rockets will need up to 39 Raptor engines each.
That's a massive production spike.
And Musk's recent email to his aerospace firm's employees builds a broader picture in the wake of its former Propulsion Vice President Will Heltsley's departure from the company earlier in November. He was managing the development of Raptor engines until the day he left, according to CNBC. Worryingly, Musk's email describes how SpaceX's leadership has since investigated the circumstances of the Raptor development program, and found that the problems faced are "far more severe" than the CEO suspected.
SpaceX's Starlink ambitions are also imperiled
"Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it had seemed a few weeks ago," wrote Musk in the email, according to Space Explored. "As we have dug into the issues following the exiting of prior senior management, they have unfortunately turned out to be far more severe than was reported. There is no way to sugarcoat this. I was going to take this weekend off, as my first weekend off in a long time, but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend." As of writing, Raptor engine development falls under the purview of Jacob Mackenzie, a six-year employee of SpaceX. But Musk wanted everyone available to jump back into work on the weekend: "Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we will need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster."
"The consequences for SpaceX if we can not get enough reliable Raptors made is that we then can't fly Starship, which means we can't fly Starlink Satellite V2," added Musk in his email, referring to the necessity for greater lift capacity and volume to place the new Starlink satellite version into orbit. "Satellite V1, by itself, is financially weak, while V3 is strong." Musk also added that the ramp-up in Starlink internet service users could reach several million new units per year. This is a costly aspiration, "assuming that satellite V2 will be on orbit to handle the bandwidth demand. These terminals will be useless otherwise." It looks like Musk and his firm could be in dire straits during the holiday season as they race to correct the production flow of one of the most advanced engineering devices ever made, to keep a broad portfolio of investments, from global internet service to returning humans to the moon, on schedule.