In an internal email seen by Space Explored, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX intends to build “several million [Starlink user terminal] units per year.” In order to have the internet bandwidth to support this goal, SpaceX will need to deploy its V2 Starlink satellites in orbit. It turns out, however, that this goal is entirely reliant on its next-gen Starship rocket that is currently in development in South Texas.
The internal email discusses issues SpaceX is currently facing with Raptor engine production. Starship is powered by this all-new engine created specifically for the rocket. SpaceX currently flies Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets that use Merlin engines that are very different. Here’s how Musk framed the situation in the email to the team:
Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago.
It’s possible that Raptor engine production issues could limit SpaceX’s ability to fly Starship operationally in 2022. The company is depending on Starship in order to fly the second major version of Starlink internet satellites, according to Musk. Current Falcon rockets cannot support V2 satellite launches, Musk reveals:
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). Satellite V1, by itself, is financially weak, while V2 is strong.
While Starlink is a valuable internet service, each satellite is expensive and many are needed to support the service. Fortunately, the V2 satellite will be more cost-efficient – like SpaceX’s new user terminal – but must these have to go to orbit via Starship. These new satellites are necessary in order for SpaceX to continue expanding its service to new users, and many people are currently on a long wait-list to join the internet service.
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.
New satellites and user terminal production will be an immensely costly investment, so getting satellites to orbit and operation in a cost effective way is essential for SpaceX. Elon closed the email with a dire call-to-action that we previously published:
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.
Space Explored’s Take
Going from no orbital flights at the start of the year to a flight every two weeks at the end of the year is a massive ramp-up. It will require SpaceX to fix the Raptor engine production issues, figure out its thermal solution, and repeatedly re-fly successfully landed vehicles.
That is a massive ask.
Hopefully, SpaceX teams will be able to achieve the lofty goal, though we believe the “risk of bankruptcy” to be more of an encouragement than a statement of fact (as explained further in our previous Space Explored’s take).