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‘Leaked’ Elon Musk Email Raises Specter of Raptor Production Issues, SpaceX Bankruptcy

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Is SpaceX going to Mars? Will the Raptor engines help launch the Starship super-heavy rocket any time soon? Will SpaceX go bankrupt? These and many more questions have been raised after an alleged email by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was leaked on November 29, 2021. Although there is still no confirmation whether the email excerpt is real or just a hoax, it has led to some serious concerns about the state of the multi-billion-dollar company.

In an email supposedly sent out to employees last week, Musk directly links the failure to produce its Raptor engines to a possible bankruptcy. This is not the first time a crisis of this magnitude has hit close to home. At the South by South West (SXSW) conference in 2018, the entrepreneur told an audience that SpaceX and Tesla almost went bankrupt in 2008. And in 2002, Musk said he wouldn’t even let his own friends invest in his off-Earth venture, hoping to avoid losing their money.

First firing of Starship Raptor flight engine. Image courtesy of Elon Musk via Twitter.

Initially obtained by media site Space Explored, the document says, “the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it had seemed a few weeks ago,” and that the consequences for SpaceX will be dire if the company cannot “get enough reliable Raptors made.”

The alleged full text published in Space Explored reads as follows:

Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it had seemed a few weeks ago. As we have dug into the issues following the exiting of 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 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.

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 a genuine risk of bankruptcy if we can’t achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.

Thanks,

Elon

While other versions of the email were published in several social media accounts, including one by @TeslaTunnel, which is critical of all Musk-founded companies, the company has not confirmed or denied the document. Musk, however, took to Twitter to answer a few comments linked to the ‘email.’ When asked about the “Raptor situation” by one of the users, Musk said, “It’s getting fixed.”

On a separate thread, he hinted that a bankruptcy “is not impossible,” citing other cases where companies (specifically GM and Chrysler) have gone bankrupt following a recession. The CEO also agreed with a tweet by American YouTuber Tim Dodd after he suggested that the “Raptor production problem” is due mainly to the huge investment in all things Starship, pointing to the engine’s production as “the biggest risk for bottleneck.”

SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines had already begun flight testing on the Starship prototype rockets in July 2019. Aiming at a lifetime of 1,000 flights, Raptor is the highest thrust-to-weight engine ever made. Designed for carrying both crew and cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO), the Moon, and Mars, Raptor is considered the future of the company’s missions and is one of the first rocket engines to be powered by methane.

The rocket engine includes quite a few 3D printed parts, enabling cost reductions and the production of the lightest components possible. A few of the printed parts include propellant valves, turbopumps, and many of the injectors’ critical pieces for initial engine development testing, which increases the speed of design and evaluation.

As one of the original pioneers in the commercial space industry to leverage 3D printing for creating spaceship components, SpaceX has spearheaded many of the disruptive designs available today for spacecraft. The powerhouse began using 3D printing technology on spaceflight hardware in 2014 and even showed interest in buying 3D printing company VELO3D in 2021, one of its additive manufacturing suppliers. So far, SpaceX has ordered 22 machines from VELO3D, becoming the company’s largest customer to date.

The first Raptor Vacuum engine (RVac) for Starship shipped from SpaceX’s rocket factory in California to SpaceX's development facility in Texas.

The first Raptor Vacuum engine (RVac) for Starship shipped from SpaceX’s rocket factory in California to SpaceX’s development facility in Texas. Image courtesy of SpaceX via Twitter.

Musk explained in the past that the final Starship vehicle meant to soar into orbit will need six Raptors to carry up to 100 people. Since the operational Starship will launch from Earth atop a gigantic rocket called Super Heavy, powered by 31 Raptor engines, one of the main concerns is creating enough Raptor engines for its rockets.

During a virtual meeting organized by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month, the billionaire entrepreneur said that his company will attempt to launch the bullet-shaped Starship to orbit in January 2022, although he is not entirely optimistic about the first launch. It will probably take at least a dozen test flights next year to successfully reach orbit, he claimed. After that, the company is set to begin launching actual payloads to orbit by 2023. However, with news of Musk’s leaked email, this deadline might be at risk.

The leak reveals severe problems in the Raptor engine production line, which, to many, come as no surprise since SpaceX was facing a few related issues in 2021, including the departure of two vice presidents (VPs). Both propulsion VP Will Heltsley and mission and launch operations VP Lee Rosen left just before Thanksgiving, having been with the company since 2009 and 2013, respectively. Such issues parallel those experienced by Tesla in the production of its Model 3, which has proven to exhibit numerous issues even after manufacture.

Elon Musk presenting in front of Starship MK 1 and Falcon 1.

Elon Musk presenting in front of Starship MK 1 and Falcon 1. Image credit Jack Beyer.

As an emerging industry with sky-high revenue projections, magnificent promises of space travel for hundreds, and no claim for sovereignty in space, the sector is ripe for expansion–and disruption from 3D printing companies. This has been clear to Musk since the onset of his startup back in 2002. With a valuation surpassing $100 billion, SpaceX has become one of the most recognizable businesses in the world, especially following a series of successes in 2020, including having averaged one launch every two weeks and sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in what became the first orbital crewed mission to lift off from the United States since NASA grounded its space shuttle fleet in 2011.

If confirmed, the leak shows several concerns that would arise if not enough Raptor engines are produced in time for the scheduled Starship launches. If that were the case, Musk also points at a potential failure to launch its Starlink satellites, notably the V2 series, which are “significantly more capable” than the V1 and were expected to begin orbiting in 2022. But the fight is not over yet. To avoid this uncertainty and guarantee high profits, Musk is pushing his team to work around the clock. Although the shadow of Raptor’s production lingers on, SpaceX had a few milestones these last few months, including the recent launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission, the launch of the third crew of astronauts successfully docking on the ISS, and finally getting back to work with NASA on the Starship Moon lander.

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