For Elon Musk, SpaceX is facing “a real risk of bankruptcy”

Posted Dec 1 2021 at 4:15 PMUpdated 1 Dec. 2021 at 16:16

Elon Musk is more used to blowing hot than cold. But this time, the fiery founder of SpaceX has very clearly lowered the temperature within his company. In an email sent last Friday to his employees, the billionaire drew up a more than worrying inventory of the short-term future of the firm.

The pitfall it faces is called Raptor, the engine of the heavy Starship launcher, the standard-bearer of Elon Musk’s space ambitions. This is not a development problem, the Raptor having already operated successfully during test flights of the ship in Texas, but a production problem.

35 engines for a launch

In its complete configuration, the entire launch system requires no less than 35 engines: 6 for Starship itself and 29 for its Super Heavy first stage. And SpaceX is failing to squeeze enough out of its factory in Hawthorne, Calif., to keep pace with the program’s development.

“The Raptor production crisis is much more serious than it seemed a few weeks ago, alarmed Elon Musk in the email, the content of which was revealed on Tuesday by the American specialized site Space Explored. […] We are facing a real risk of bankruptcy if we cannot ensure at least one flight every fortnight next year”.

The boss of SpaceX launched the general mobilization. And it didn’t matter if his employees were in the middle of Thanksgiving celebrations. “I was going to take some time off myself this weekend, my first in a long time. Instead, I’ll be on the Raptor production line, he wrote. […] Unless there’s a family emergency or it’s physically impossible for you to get back to Hawthorne, we’re going to need everyone to pick us up from what is, frankly, a disaster. »

The future of Starlink linked to that of Starship

Starship is due to make its first orbital flight in early 2022. Others will follow throughout the year, with the idea that the launcher will be fully operational in 2023. And keeping this schedule is all the more important since Starship must support the he other flagship program of the firm, Starlink, on which SpaceX has invested heavily.

Starship, perched on its Super Heavy first floor.SpaceX

Until now, the microsatellites making up the constellation, which must offer an internet connection anywhere on the globe, were put into orbit by Falcon 9. But this will no longer be enough to carry the new generation of devices, which will have to be launched by Starship.

“If we don’t have enough Raptors, we won’t be able to launch the second generation of Starlink, which is financially much stronger than the first,” warned Elon Musk. And SpaceX is “in the process of increasing the rate of production of reception terminals” of the signal, “at the rate of several million units per year”. “For this to be useful, new satellites need to be in orbit to provide enough bandwidth,” he said.

“Only the paranoid survive”

This crisis experienced by SpaceX could also splash NASA. Starship was designated last spring to land astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis missions. A choice strongly criticized even in the ranks of Congress and challenged in court by the other competitors in the running, Blue Origin in the lead.

These, which were ultimately dismissed, stressed in particular that the selection of a single contractor could jeopardize the entire program in the event of a problem in the design of the lander. SpaceX’s current problems sound like an unwelcome echo, though it’s still far too early to tell if they will have any effect on the timing of the return to the Moon.

Difficult to know exactly in what situation the firm is. Once the content of the email was revealed by the press, Elon Musk hastened to play it down on Twitter. “If a severe global recession dries up liquidity as SpaceX loses billions on Starlink and Starship, then bankruptcy, while unlikely, is not impossible,” he said. And to end with a quote from Andrew Grove, ex-boss of Intel: “Only the paranoid survive”.

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