'Severe' Starship Raptor engine production snags could bankrupt SpaceX, Elon Musk warns
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had to scrap his plans for the weekend and send an "all hands on deck" email to all SpaceX employees. The problems with the Raptor engine for the Starship space vehicle are so severe, according to the email, that SpaceX may be nearing bankruptcy, he warned. Said Starship is the one that is supposed to carry humans to the Moon and Mars at some point, but for now has yet to complete its first orbital flight, powered by those same Raptor engines.
Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago. As we have dug into the issues following exiting prior senior management, they have unfortunately turned out to be far more severe than was reported.
There is no way to sugarcoat this. I was going to take this weekend off, as my first weekend off in a long time, but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend. Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster.
The consequences for SpaceX if we can’t get enough reliable Raptors made is that we then can’t fly Starship, which means we then can’t fly Starlink Satellite V2 (Falcon has neither the volume *nor* the mass to orbit needed for satellite V2). Satellite V1 by itself is financially weak, whereas V2 is strong.
In addition, we are spooling up terminal production to several million units per year, which will consume massive capital, assuming that satellite V2 will be on orbit to handle the bandwidth demand. These terminals will be useless otherwise.
What it comes down to is that we face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.
Two high-profile SpaceX managers left the company last month, one of whom was in charge of the Raptor engine development. Starship is the only SpaceX rocket that can launch a large enough batch of the heavier second version of the satellites that comprise the Starlink system. The rocket needs no less than 29 of the full-flow staged combustion Methane engines to execute an orbital flight, somewhat explaining why Elon Musk calls the Raptor engine production mishaps a "crisis."
The Starlink constellation of Internet-beaming satellites relies on heavy subsidies per customer acquisition to grab the necessary market share to become profitable. The latest models of the satellites have laser communication abilities and can provide much more bandwidth, eventually pushing the whole operation into the black, but they need some heavy lifting.
Their launch relies on Starship's first orbital flight, expected early next year and, yes, lots and lots of Raptor engines. Still, Mr. Musk is no stranger to all-nighters during critical production moments. He has pulled miracles with similar Tesla car snags, so the Raptor engine crisis may be just one such moment for SpaceX, as he subsequently implied on Twitter.
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If a severe global recession were to dry up capital availability / liquidity while SpaceX was losing billions on Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 30, 2021
GM & Chrysler went BK last recession.
“Only the paranoid survive.” – Grove