Last Friday, when most Americans slept their hangovers on tryptophan, headed to the mall to shop for Black Friday, or tried unsuccessfully to avoid political talks with visiting family members. , SpaceX founder Elon Musk was pretty much at work. Not finding things to his liking, Musk emailed the employees at the company. A full copy of the email, obtained by Ars, appears at the end of this story.
Musk told his employees that SpaceX is facing a “Raptor production crisis,” which means the company is struggling to produce enough high-tech rocket motors to support the Starship and Super vehicle test plans. Heavy in 2022.
“I was going to take this weekend off, like my first weekend off in a long time, but instead, I’ll be on the Raptor line all night and all weekend,” Musk wrote. “Unless you have critical family issues or can physically return to Hawthorne, we need everyone on the bridge to recover from what is, frankly, a disaster.” “
Failing success with this initiative, Musk added, “we face a real risk of bankruptcy.”
Someone reading this email from the outside, without much knowledge of Musk or SpaceX, or the intense demands for capital from rockets, would probably think that the richest person in the world has gone mad. Or is a huge jerk. Or both. No doubt this will confirm the opinions of people who believe Musk is a terrible human being.
But there is another side to this story. Really, Musk is a very demanding boss. But he is not crazy, and many of his employees appreciate his leadership. Not all, of course.
Why did he send this email?
So why did he send the email? Because SpaceX is facing a kind of crisis when it comes to the production of Raptor engines. This is the powerful methane-liquid-oxygen rocket engine that will power both the Super Heavy rocket that SpaceX is developing as well as its Starship upper stage. And the situation is apparently worse than what Musk realized before Thanksgiving weekend.
This is important because SpaceX simultaneously undertook two huge, unprecedented technological space projects. Each will cost billions of dollars – conservatively, $ 5 billion each, and probably a lot more – to come to fruition and provide some return on your investment. And ultimately, SpaceX’s success depends on both projects, as they each depend to some extent on each other.
SpaceX is developing the Starship launch system with the ultimate goal of sending enough people, supplies, electricity, technology, and more to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars. It might sound like a wild plan for a private company, but it is Musk’s plan nonetheless. It will take, by Musk’s own estimate, “no less than a million tonnes.” As a perspective, the space agencies of NASA, Russia, Europe and China have together landed considerably less than 10 tons on Mars in the past 60 years. To help fund this settlement initiative, Musk ultimately relies on Starlink’s revenue.
To develop Starship, SpaceX embarked on a capital-intensive project to build a new spaceport and shipyard in South Texas near Boca Chica Beach, as well as a huge Raptor engine production plant in the center. from Texas. (I’ve heard that the company is spending around $ 1 billion a year to develop the Boca Chica site, named Starbase, but SpaceX hasn’t confirmed this.)
At the same time, SpaceX is building a mega-constellation in low Earth orbit to provide high-speed internet around the planet. The company’s 1,600 or so functioning satellites already in space outnumber any other company or country in the world currently operating. Starlink has approximately 140,000 customers worldwide, but the service is far from perfect and far from cost effective.
To achieve a truly global and reliable service, SpaceX must complete its constellation. This is the “Starlink Satellite V2” that Musk refers to in his email. That’s about 12,000 second-generation satellites which are a bit bigger than the first edition because they have more capacity.
To launch them into orbit, it would take around 300 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Although the Falcon 9 is the cheapest and most efficient rocket in the world, it remains an expensive proposition. Assuming an internal cost of $ 25 million per launch, that would add up to $ 7.5 billion. And that many launches would probably take seven to ten years, an eternity for Musk. Finally, those launch costs are on top of the billions of dollars to build the satellites themselves and the ground terminals for customers to receive signals.
The answer to this conundrum, of course, is the much more massive and fully reusable Starship rocket. A single spacecraft launch can probably take around 400 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit. A fully operational spacecraft therefore solves many of SpaceX’s problems. A ready-to-fly Starship rocket can start to generate commercial and government launch revenue and also get Starlink into orbit much faster and for much less money.
So in the short term, Musk and SpaceX are primarily focused on getting Starship into orbit, proving the ability to land both the booster and the upper stage, and then reuse them. The company hopes to begin Starship’s orbital test flights in early 2022.