SpaceX grapples with Raptor production problems

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WASHINGTON — Problems increasing production of the Raptor engines that power SpaceX’s Starship vehicle have led to personnel shakeups at the company and a warning from founder Elon Musk that the company risked “bankruptcy” if the company could not resolve them.

The issue came to a head in a Nov. 26 email from Musk to SpaceX employees where Musk warned of a cascading effect of the “production crisis” of Raptor engines that could affect deployment of the next generation of its Starlink constellation and overall company finances. The email, obtained by SpaceNews, was first reported by SpaceExplored.com.

“Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago,” he wrote. “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.”

Musk’s email did not go into the specifics of the issues, but his comments likely refer to the recent departure of Will Heltsley, vice president of propulsion at SpaceX. Heltsley, who had been at SpaceX since 2009 and in the role of vice president of propulsion since 2018, left amid problems scaling up production of Raptor.

In the email, sent the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, Musk said he had planned to take the holiday weekend off “but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend,” calling on company employees to do the same. “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.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Musk’s email. The company infrequently acknowledges media inquiries.

SpaceX needs to produce large numbers of Raptor engines for its Starship vehicle, whose first orbital flight could take place as soon as January. The Starship vehicle itself uses six Raptor engines, but its Super Heavy booster needed for orbital launches currently has 29 engines. Musk said in a Nov. 17 talk to two National Academies committees that Super Heavy will later use 33 Raptor engines, but did not give a schedule for that change.

The company is building a new factory at its McGregor, Texas, test site for large-scale production of Raptor engines, but for now is building the engines at its Hawthorne, California, headquarters. Musk said in July the McGregor facility will be able to produce two to four Raptor engines per day, but the company has not stated when that factory will begin operations.

That’s created a production crunch as SpaceX plans for a series of test flights of Starship in 2022. Musk said at the National Academies meeting that SpaceX is planning for as many as a dozen test flights of Starship in 2022 with the goal of enabling commercial operations to begin in 2023. “The engine build rate is currently the biggest constraint on how many vehicles we can make,” he said then.

Musk, though, appeared to be aiming for a much higher launch rate in his email. “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,” he wrote. That would be 26 launches next year, although one industry source, speaking on background, said Musk was likely referring to a launch rate to be achieved by the end of 2022, not an average for the full year.

The risk of bankruptcy is tied to the need to use Starship to deploy a second generation of Starlink satellites. “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),” he wrote. “Satellite V1 by itself is financially weak, whereas V2 is strong.”

SpaceX, he added, is investing “massive capital” on production of end-user terminals, with a goal of several million units per year. Those terminals, he wrote, depend on the additional bandwidth the second generation of Starlink satellites will provide. “These terminals will be useless otherwise,” he wrote.

In tweets Nov. 30, Musk appeared to back away from some of the more dire warnings in his earlier email. “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,” he wrote, mentioning the bankruptcies of automakers Chrysler and General Motors in the 2008 recession. He then cited a quote attributed to Andy Grove, the late chief executive of Intel: “Only the paranoid survive.”

As for the Raptor production issues, he said in another tweet, “It’s getting fixed.”