Elon Musk last week on Black Friday sent an "All Hands on Deck" email to SpaceX employees asking everyone to cancel weekend plans to help get Raptor engine production back on track.
The full email has leaked, and it reveals just how aggressively SpaceX is ramping up its Starlink broadband internet constellation - and just how precarious the entire undertaking is.
Here are a few choice quotes from Elon's email:
"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.
The consequences for SpaceX if we can not 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, while V2 is strong."
All Starlink satellites to date are a version 1.0 design, or more recently version 1.5 which are equipped with lasers to allow satellite-to-satellite communication.
SpaceX has demonstrated that it is capable of launching 60 V1 satellites at a time on its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, or 53 V1.5 satellites.
But SpaceX has plans to switch to a much more capable version 2.0 Starlink satellite - and it seems that this satellite design is too big and heavy to launch cost-effectively on the Falcon 9.
To launch Starlink 2.0, SpaceX intends to rely on its gigantic Starship and Super Heavy booster - a system capable of launching hundreds of satellites at a time.
Starship is designed to outperform the Saturn V that took humans to the moon, yet rather then be expendable it is designed to be able to be rapidly and affordably reused.
The catch - Starship has never flown successfully, other than one brief test flight (and successful landing) to just 10km altitude.
Over the course of the next year - SpaceX aims to complete Starship development to get this massive rocket ramped up for commercial usage.
And to do that - it will need to be able to mass produce a huge amount of its Raptor rocket engines.
But unfortunately - it seems that Raptor production is "quite frankly, a disaster" at the moment - throwing the whole project into jeopardy.
Without enough Raptors, Starship is going to fall further behind schedule.
And without Starship - it seems that the economics of Starlink just don't work, and SpaceX will continue to lose billions on the project.
Starlink Terminal Production Ramping Up Massively
Now that the cheaper and easier to manufacture rectangular Starlink receiver is in production, it seems that SpaceX is gearing up to be able to produce millions of these units a year
From Elon's email:
"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."
The current V1 Starlink satellites seemingly do not have enough capacity to serve enough customers to make Starlink financially worthwhile.
This may explain why so many areas of the country have yet to have Starlink "cells" activated to provide coverage.
We suspect SpaceX is focused on keeping performance high for fewer customers in limited areas, rather than going "nationwide" with poor performance.
Betting It All
SpaceX is seemingly betting it all on being able to solve the Raptor production issues and rapidly complete Starship development, moving at a pace that makes the Space Race of the 1960's seem slow.
If all goes well - a first Starship orbital test flight might be attempted sometime in January or February.
But the tests need to go well, and it will take a LOT of engines.
"What it comes down to, 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."
It will be absolutely amazing if SpaceX can pull this off.
Elon Musk Clarifies Bankruptcy Risk
When asked about the letter on Twitter, Elon Musk seemed to acknowledged that SpaceX would currently be able to raise money to avoid bankruptcy, but:
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.
GM & Chrysler went (bankrupt) last recession.
“Only the paranoid survive.” – Grove
He also put the goals fo the Starship program in context:
The magnitude of the Starship program is not widely appreciated. It is designed to extend life to Mars (and the moon), which requires ~1000 times more payload to orbit than all current Earth rockets combined.
Elon Musk has frequently mentioned that the goal of Starlink is to generate enough income to fund his Mars ambitions - but right now Starlink is a massive money loser. Some analysts suspect that it would take 7-10 years to fully deploy the Starlink V2 constellation using the current small Falcon 9 rocket, making Starlink economically not very viable unless the pace can be massively picked up with Starship.
And if Starship does eventually succeed - it will positively transform the economics of space, for Starlink and beyond.
Key Mobile Internet Related Considerations
- Making Starlink economically viable seemingly depends on Starship being a success. If SpaceX encounters many more issues in the development process, broader deployment of Starlink may be severely impacted and delayed.
- An internal email like this is likely intended to motivate the SpaceX team by letting them know just how much is at stake. If things begin to look dire - SpaceX probably will be able to delay Starlink expansion or raise more investment money long before facing bankruptcy.
- Starlink is a MASSIVE undertaking, larger than any constellation that has ever been attempted before. As Elon himself has reiterated many times, success is not guaranteed.
- Starlink may eventually be a core part of many mobile internet setups for RVers and Cruisers - but building things at this scale takes time, and many people have developed unrealistic expectations of what will be available in the near term future.
Starlink going Bankrupt Video
For more information:
- Elon's Full Letter: Space Explored - "Elon Musk says SpaceX could face ‘genuine risk of bankruptcy’ from Starship engine production"
Updates Made to our Content & Relevant Resources:
- Gear Center: Starlink by SpaceX
- Guide: Mobile Satellite Internet & Communication Options For RVers And Boaters
- Content Collection: Mobile Satellite Internet Resource Center