SpaceX grapples with Raptor production problems ‘disaster’ that puts SpaceX at risk of bankruptcy

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The large number of Raptor engines needed for SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is creating a “production crisis” at SpaceX, company founder Elon Musk said in an internal email. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON – Trouble increasing production of the Raptor engines that power SpaceX’s Starship vehicle has led to personnel changes at the company and a warning from founder Elon Musk that the company risked “bankruptcy” if the company could not. solve them.

The problem came to a head in a Nov. 26 email from Musk to SpaceX employees where Musk warned of a cascading effect from the “production crisis” of Raptor engines that could affect next-generation deployment. your Starlink constellation and overall company finances. The email, obtained by SpaceNews, was first reported by SpaceExplored.com.

“Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it looked a few weeks ago,” he wrote. “As we delve into the post-departure issues of former senior management, they have unfortunately turned out to be much more serious than reported.”

Musk’s email did not go into specific details of the issues, but his comments likely refer to the recent departure of Will Heltsley, vice president of propulsion at SpaceX. Heltsley, who had been with SpaceX since 2009 and in the role of vice president of propulsion since 2018, left amid trouble to increase Raptor production.

In the email, sent the day after Thanksgiving break, Musk said he had planned to take the weekend off “but instead I’ll be on the Raptor line all night and for the weekend,” and asked company employees to do the same. “Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we need all hands on deck to recover from what is, frankly, a disaster.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Musk’s email. The company rarely accepts inquiries from the media.

SpaceX needs to produce a large number of Raptor engines for its Starship vehicle, whose first orbital flight could take place in January. The Starship vehicle itself uses six Raptor engines, but its super-heavy thruster required for orbital launches currently has 29 engines. Musk said in a Nov.17 talk to two National Academies committees that Super Heavy will later use 33 Raptor engines but did not give a timeline for that change.

The company is building a new factory at its McGregor, Texas test site for large-scale production of Raptor engines, but for now, it is building the engines at its Hawthorne, California headquarters. Musk said in July that the McGregor facility will be able to produce two to four Raptor engines per day, but the company has not stated when that factory will begin operating.

That created a production crisis as SpaceX plans a series of Starship test flights in 2022. Musk told the National Academies meeting that SpaceX is planning up to a dozen Starship test flights in 2022 with the goal of enabling that commercial operations will begin in 2023. “The engine build rate is currently the biggest limitation on the number of vehicles we can build,” he said at the time.

However, Musk seemed to be aiming for a much higher launch rate in his email. “It all comes down to us facing a real risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” he wrote. That would be 26 launches next year, although an industry source, speaking in the background, said Musk was likely referring to a launch rate to be reached by the end of 2022, not an average for the entire year.

The risk of bankruptcy is linked to the need to use Starship to deploy the second generation of Starlink satellites. “The consequences for SpaceX if we can’t make enough reliable Raptors is that then we can’t fly Starship, which means then we can’t fly Starlink Satellite V2 (Falcon doesn’t have the volume * and * the mass to orbit needed for the V2 satellite) “, wrote. “The V1 satellite alone is financially weak, while the V2 is strong.”

SpaceX, he added, is investing “massive capital” in the production of end-user terminals, with a goal of several million units per year. Those terminals, he wrote, depending on the additional bandwidth that the second generation of Starlink satellites will provide. “These terminals will be useless otherwise,” she wrote.

In tweets on November 30, Musk seemed to shy away from some of the more dire warnings in the earlier email from him. “If a severe global recession depleted the availability of capital/liquidity as SpaceX lost billions in Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible,” he wrote, mentioning the bankruptcies of automakers Chrysler. and General Motors in the Recession of 2008. He then quoted a quote attributed to Andy Grove, the late Intel CEO: “Only the paranoid survive.”

As for Raptor’s production issues, he said in another tweet: “It’s getting fixed.”

Elon Musk predicts first Starship orbital launch in early 2022

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Elon Musk said the first orbital Starship launch could take place as soon as January, assuming the FAA completes an environmental review and issues a launch license by the end of this year. Credit: SpaceX

LAS VEGAS – SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he expects this first orbital flight of his company’s Starship vehicle to take place in January, pending regulatory approvals.

Musk, speaking at a joint meeting of the National Academies Board for Space Studies and the Board of Physics and Astronomy on November 17, said the company was in the final preparations for both the vehicle and its launch site in Boca Chica. , Texas, ahead of a campaign of up to a dozen test flights in 2022.

“We are close to our initial orbital launch,” he said. “The first orbital flight we hope to do in January.” Later in the discussion, he revised that, saying the flight would take place “in January or maybe February.”

That flight, as outlined in the regulatory filings, would put the spacecraft into orbit, but the rover would complete less than one orbit before reentering and splashing in the Pacific Ocean about 100 kilometers off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Both the Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy thruster are now complete, he said, and the launch pad and tower should be complete this month. A “lot of tests” will follow in December.

“There are a lot of risks associated with this first launch, so I wouldn’t say it is likely to be successful, but I think we will go a long way,” he said. Later, he said that he was not sure that Starship would reach orbit on its first flight, “but I’m sure we will arrive next year and we plan to have a high rate of flight next year.”

Musk then estimated that SpaceX would attempt a dozen Starship launches next year, and possibly more. “The engine build rate is currently the biggest restriction on the number of vehicles we can build,” he said, given that Super Heavy requires 29 Raptor engines currently, then 33, along with six at Starship. The company is building a new factory in Texas for high-volume Raptor production.

If SpaceX is successful in recovering and reusing Starship during those test flights, operational missions could begin in 2023. “We intend to complete the test flight program next year, which means it is probably ready for valuable payloads. , not for testing, basically, but actual payloads – in 2023. Coming soon. “

However, that timetable depends on obtaining regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. “We expect approval of our license from the FAA later this year,” Musk said.

The FAA has yet to complete the necessary environmental review for the Starship launches. The FAA said on Nov. 15 that it was evaluating more than 17,000 written comments and 121 oral comments from two public hearings. A “permit board” from the Department of Transportation plans to complete the environmental review by the end of December, which would allow the FAA to proceed with the issuance of a license.

However, that environmental review process could also conclude that additional work is required, including a full-scale environmental impact assessment. That would delay months, if not years, a license for the Starship releases.

Musk, scheduled to appear at the virtual meeting for half an hour, spent more than an hour answering questions from board members on a wide range of topics, from SpaceX’s choice of stainless steel for Starship to threats facing civilization. human.

“This is a very deep vehicle,” he said of Starship. “Nothing really similar is being developed, and I don’t think anything like it has been proposed. But it has the potential to affect human destiny in a very profound way.”

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