Elon Musk is angered by the lack of progress made by SpaceX in developing the Raptor engine that powers 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.
“The Raptor production crisis is much worse than it was a few weeks ago,” Musk wrote.
“If we don’t achieve Starship flight rates at least once every two weeks next year, we face a real risk of bankruptcy,” Musk later said.
The Starship is the giant, next-generation rocket SpaceX is developing to launch cargo and people on missions to the Moon and Mars. The company is testing the prototype at a facility in southern Texas and has made several short test flights. But to get to orbital launch, the rocket prototypes would need 39 Raptor engines each – a steep ramp up in engine production.
Musk’s email to SpaceX employees earlier this month provides more context about the significance of the departure of former vice president of propulsion Will Heltsey. CNBC reported that Heltsley had been dropped from Raptor development, with Musk noting in his email that the company’s leadership has been digging into the program’s problems ever since — and that Musk previously thought the circumstances were “far more serious.” ” Might be possible.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
SpaceX founder and CEO’s email was the first informed of By Space Explore, a subset of the technology blog 9to5Mac.
Musk wrote in the email that he planned to take a long Thanksgiving holiday. But, after discovering the status of the Raptor, Musk said he would personally work on the engine production line Friday night and over the weekend.
“We clearly need all hands on deck to recover from a disaster,” Musk wrote.
The billionaire founder has repeatedly called production the hardest part of building SpaceX’s giant rocket. The company has built its Starship production and test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with multiple prototypes working together.
The company’s next big step in developing Starship is to launch into orbit.
Musk said on November 17 that SpaceX will “hopefully launch” the first orbital Starship flight in January or February, pending regulatory approval by the FAA as well as technical readiness.
SpaceX wants Starship to be fully reusable, with both the rocket and its booster capable of landing after launch for future flights. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable. The company can regularly land and re-launch boosters but not the upper part or stage of the rocket.
Musk said earlier this month that he was not sure if Starship would successfully reach orbit on its first try, but stressed that he was “convinced” that the rocket would reach space in 2022. He also noted at the time that Starship development is “at least 90% internally funded so far,” with the company not assuming “any international collaboration” or external funding.
SpaceX has raised billions over the past several years to fund both Starship and its satellite Internet project Starlink, with the company’s valuation recently reaching $100 billion.
But, while SpaceX has launched nearly 1,700 Starlink satellites into orbit so far, Musk said the first version of the satellite is “economically weak.” The company continues to grow Starlink’s user base, with approximately 140,000 users paying for the service at a rate of $99 per month.
Earlier this year SpaceX outlined improvements for the second version of the satellite, with Musk saying in his email that “V2 is robust” but can only be launched effectively by its Starship rocket.
To date SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites with its Falcon 9 rockets, but Musk underlined that those rockets do not have the mass or volume needed to effectively deploy second-generation satellites. That means the success of the Raptor engine program is also critical to the long-term financial stability of SpaceX’s Starlink service, which Musk has talked about spinning off into an IPO.
Notably, SpaceX is currently ramping up production of its Starlink antennas to “several million units per year,” Musk said in the email, but they would be “useless” if the Raptor is not successful.