Elon Musk is furious about the lack of progress SpaceX has made in developing the Raptor engines that power its Starship rocket.
He described a dire situation the day after Thanksgiving in a company-wide email that CNBC received a copy of.
“The Raptor manufacturing crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago,” wrote Musk.
“We face a real risk of bankruptcy if we can’t hit a Starship flight rate at least every two weeks next year,” Musk later added.
Starship is the next-generation massive rocket SpaceX is developing to launch cargo and people on missions to the moon and Mars. The company is testing prototypes at a facility in south Texas and has flown several short test flights. However, to get to orbital launches, the rocket prototypes will each require up to 39 Raptor engines – which will require a sharp increase in engine production.
Musk’s email to SpaceX reps provides more context on the significance of the departure of former Propulsion Vice President Will Heltsley earlier this month. Heltsley was removed from Raptor development prior to retiring, CNBC reported.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. Heltsley did not respond to CNBC requests for comment.
The SpaceX founder and CEO’s email was first reported by Space Explored, a subgroup of the 9to5Mac technology blog.
Raptor engine program is “a disaster”
Musk wrote in the email that he was planning to take the long Thanksgiving holiday away. But after discovering the Raptor situation, Musk said he would work in person on the engine production line through Friday night and into the weekend.
“We need everyone on deck to recover from a disaster,” wrote Musk.
The billionaire founder has repeatedly called production the toughest part in developing SpaceX’s mammoth rocket. The company has steadily expanded its Starship manufacturing and testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with multiple prototypes in the works at the same time.
The company’s next big step in the development of Starship is its launch into orbit.
Musk said Nov. 17 that SpaceX would “hopefully” launch its first orbital Starship flight in January or February pending FAA regulatory approval and technical readiness.
SpaceX wants Starship to be fully reusable, with both the rocket and its booster landing after a launch and being able to be restored for future flights. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable. The company can regularly land and restart the boosters, but not the top or stage of the rocket.
Musk said earlier this month that he wasn’t sure if Starship would successfully reach orbit on the first attempt, but emphasized that he was “confident” that the rocket will hit space in 2022. He also stated at the time that the development of Starship “has so far been financed to at least 90% from its own resources, with the company not assuming any” international cooperation “or external financing.
Spaceship critical to Starlink’s financial success
SpaceX has raised billions in funding over the past several years for both Starship and its Starlink satellite internet project, with the company’s valuation reaching $ 100 billion recently.
But while SpaceX has put about 1,700 Starlink satellites into orbit so far, Musk said the first version of the satellite was “financially weak.” The company has steadily expanded Starlink’s user base, with approximately 140,000 users paying $ 99 per month for the service.
Earlier this year, SpaceX outlined improvements for the second version of the satellite, with Musk saying in his email that “V2 is strong” but can only be effectively launched by its Starship rockets.
So far, SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites with its Falcon-9 rockets, but Musk pointed out that these rockets do not have the mass or volume required for the second-generation satellites to operate effectively. 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 spoke of when it went public.
Notably, SpaceX is currently ramping up 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.