Elon Musk Calls Starship Raptor Engine Program a “Disaster,” Warns SpaceX Risks Bankruptcy Next Year

Super Heavy/Starship system in flight. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In an internal email to employees, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that development of the Raptor rocket engine that will power the Super Heavy/Starship launch system is in “crisis,” adding the company risks bankruptcy if the company can’t turn the situation around, according to media reports.

The problems pose a risk not only to SpaceX and its multi-billion dollar Starlink satellite broadband program, but to Musk’s plans to colonize Mars and NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon. The U.S. space agency has awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a lunar lander based on the Starship vehicle.

In the email, reported by Space Explored, Musk called the Raptor program a “disaster” and warned of a “genuine risk of bankruptcy” next year if the new rockets are not launching Starlink broadband satellites in large numbers every two weeks.

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 [9] has neither the volume nor the mass to orbit needed for satellite V2). Satellite V1, by itself, is financially weak, while V2 is strong.

In addition, we are spooling up [user] 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.

SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites to provide global broadband services. The company has launched 1,844 satellites, with 1,684 functioning spacecraft in orbit, according to Jonathan’s Space Report.

The fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship system will be capable of launching more than 100 metric tons (220,462 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO). A Falcon 9 can deliver 15.6 metric tons (34,392 lb) to LEO when the first stage is recovered for reuse, and 22.8 metric tons (50,265 lb) with an expendable first stage that crashes into the ocean.

Falcon 9 rockets have launched up to 60 Starlink V1 satellites at a time. Falcon 9 has launched 53 of the heavier Starlink V2 satellites, which are equipped with laser communications systems.

Falcon Heavy can deliver up to 63.8 metric tons (140,655 lb) to LEO. The rocket uses three Falcon 9 first stages, which can be recovered for reuse. SpaceX has not launched Starlink satellites on Falcon Heavy.

Super Heavy/Starship will use up to 39 Raptor engines. Super Heavy, which serves as the first stage, will have 29 Raptors during initial flight tests, rising to 33 engines on later flights. The upper stage Starship vehicle requires six Raptors.

The challenges go further than mass producing that many engines. “But a complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine that can actually make life multiplanetary. It won’t be called Raptor,” Musk said in a recent Tweet.

Musk blamed “previous senior management” for the problems in the Raptor program. CNBC reported last week that SpaceX vice president of propulsion Will Heltsley had left the company due to lack of progress in developing and manufacturing the powerful engines. He was replaced by Jacob McKenzie.

SpaceX vice president of mission and launch operations Lee Rosen and senior director of mission and launch operations Ricky Lim left the company recently, CNBC added. It is not clear whether the departures of Rosen and Lim were related to the problems in the Raptor program.