Starship’s Raptor engine crisis risks bankruptcy
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stands at the base of a prototype Starship rocket at the company’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.
Steve Jurvetson on flickr
Elon Musk is angry at SpaceX’s lack of progress in developing the Raptor engines that power its Starship rocket.
He described a dire situation the day after Thanksgiving in a company-wide email, a copy of which was obtained by CNBC.
“Raptor’s production crisis is much worse than it looked a few weeks ago,” Musk wrote.
“We face a real risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship theft rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” Musk added later.
Starship is the massive next-generation rocket that SpaceX is developing to launch cargoes and people on missions to the Moon and Mars. The company is testing prototypes at a facility in South Texas and has performed several short test flights. But to move on to orbital launches, rocket prototypes will need 39 Raptor engines each, which requires a large increase in engine production.
Musk’s email to SpaceX employees provides more context on the significance of the departure of former Vice President of Propulsion Will Heltsley earlier this month. Heltsley had been removed from Raptor’s development prior to his departure, CNBC reported, Musk noting in his email that company management has since looked into the program’s problems – and found the circumstances “to be fine. more serious “than Musk previously thought.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
The email from the founder and CEO of SpaceX was first reported by Space Explored, a subset of the 9to5Mac tech blog.
Raptor engine program is “a disaster”
A closer look under the base of the Super Heavy Booster 4 on the 29 Raptor engines.
Musk wrote in the email that he was planning to take the long Thanksgiving vacation. But, after finding out about the Raptor situation, Musk said he would personally work on the engine production line until Friday night and through the weekend.
“We need everyone on the bridge to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster,” Musk wrote.
The billionaire founder has repeatedly described production as the most difficult part of creating SpaceX’s gigantic rocket. The company gradually built its Starship production and testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with several prototypes in operation simultaneously.
The next major step for the company in the development of Starship is the launch into orbit.
A Starship prototype tests its six Raptor rocket engines on November 12, 2021 in Boca Chica, Texas.
Musk said on Nov. 17 that SpaceX will “hopefully launch” the spacecraft’s first orbital flight in January or February, pending FAA regulatory approval as well as technical readiness.
SpaceX wants Starship to be fully reusable, with both the rocket and its booster capable of landing after a launch and being salvaged for future flights. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable. The company can regularly land and restart the thrusters, but not the top, or stage, of the rocket.
Musk earlier this month that he wasn’t sure Starship would successfully reach orbit on the first try, but stressed that he was “confident” the rocket will reach space in 2022. He also noted at the time that Starship’s development “is at least 90% funded internally so far”, with the company assuming “no international collaboration” or external funding.
Starship crucial to Starlink’s financial success
SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in recent years, both to fund Starship and its Starlink satellite internet project, with the company’s valuation recently reaching $ 100 billion.
But, while SpaceX has launched around 1,700 Starlink satellites into orbit so far, Musk said the first version of the satellite “is financially weak.” The company has steadily grown Starlink’s user base, with around 140,000 users paying for the service at $ 99 per month.
Earlier this year, SpaceX showcased improvements for the second version of the satellite, with Musk stating in his email that “V2 is strong” but can only be launched effectively by his Starship rockets.
To date, SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites with its Falcon 9 rockets, but Musk has pointed out that these rockets lack the mass or volume to effectively deploy second-generation satellites. This means that the success of the Raptor engine program is also critical to the long-term financial stability of SpaceX’s Starlink service, which Musk talked about splitting in an IPO.
Notably, SpaceX is currently increasing production of its Starlink antennas “to several million units per year,” Musk said in the email, but these will be “otherwise useless” if Raptor is unsuccessful.