SpaceX Stumbles over Raptor Engines, Threatening Bankruptcy

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“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.”

Those are the words of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO. He emailed them to his company last week in a panic over the stalled production of its Raptor engines, which are supposed to power the Starship rocket that will be NASA’s next lunar lander and SpaceX’s shuttle to Mars.

The email, which was leaked Monday to Space Explored, has Musk urging his employees to work through Thanksgiving weekend and promising to do the same himself, despite having planned to take a couple days off. Starship is scheduled to perform its first orbital test flight by January or February, but if raptor production doesn’t step up soon, Musk suggested, then SpaceX could face financial ruin.

“What it comes down to,” he said, “is that we face a genuine risk of bankruptcy if we can’t achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.”

Starship is SpaceX’s massive next-generation spacecraft that has been tasked with not only sending humans to the Moon and Mars but transporting the company’s Starlink satellites to orbit. About 1,700 satellites have been launched thus far, but the traditional Falcon 9 rocket lacks the mass and volume to carry Starlink’s newer V2 design, which is needed to complete the satellite constellation. That’s where Starship comes in, hopefully, at least.

On paper, SpaceX looks great. It became the second most valuable private company in the world when it surpassed a valuation of 100 billion dollars in October. But to some on the inside, the view isn’t so pretty. Earlier this month, Spacex’s vice president of Propulsion, Will Heltsley, left the company shortly after being moved off the Raptor program due to a lack of progress. Vice President of Mission and Launch Operation Lee Rosen and Senior Director of Mission and Launch Operations Rick Lim have also resigned.

Musk fretted over the turnover in his leaked email. “the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it had seemed a few weeks ago,” he wrote, adding, “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.”

It’s not the first time disaster has loomed over the CEO. According to his own Tweet on November 2, his other company Tesla was just one month from bankruptcy from mid 2017 to mid 2019, as it ramped up production of its Model 3.

It’s uncertain how much of the latest crisis is Musk’s genuine fear and how much is him putting pressure on his employees, but we are sure to discover the answer within the coming months as SpaceX’s Starship program, and the Raptor engines integral to its success, are put to the test.

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