Earlier this week, a leaked email sent by Elon Musk sparked rumors that SpaceX might go bankrupt due to a shortage of its Raptor engines.
“We face a real risk of bankruptcy if next year we cannot achieve a Starship rate of at least one every two weeks,” he said in the email.
Elon Musk’s two biggest companies, SpaceX and Tesla, have both rebounded from being close to bankruptcy before. However, Musk downplayed the risk that SpaceX will go bankrupt so soon after completing a funding round that raised $755 million with a $100 billion valuation.
Elon Musk has also been selling off a significant amount of Tesla shares. It’s likely that at least some of the money will be used to pay capital gains taxes. There has also been some speculation that he’ll sink a lot of the remaining money into SpaceX.
The future of SpaceX appears to hinge on the future of Starship, which will require 39 Raptor engines apiece to reach orbit. Starship’s first orbital test flight is scheduled for as early as January 2022 after multiple delays that seem to mostly hinge on regulatory red tape. An ongoing environmental review appears to be the main hangup at this point.
SpaceX’s VP of propulsion recently left the company, which may indicate that Elon Musk is dissatisfied with the pace of rocket engine development.
On the plus side, a recent NASA review indicates that Starship is an attractive option for sending larger scientific packages to other planets like Mars once it becomes operational. It will be capable of sending payloads of up to 100 metric tons to the Moon and Mars.
Elon Musk has frequently said that the ultimate goal of SpaceX is to send humans to Mars. Early plans for what Musk calls “Mars Base Alpha” included a Starship precursor referred to as the BFR.
Starship’s larger payload capacity may make a “Mars Base Alpha” possible by sending much of the hardware in advance. Before SpaceX was even an idea, crewed Mars mission supporters like Mars Society Robert Zubrin proposed relatively low-cost missions that could make use of high-capacity rockets and In-Situ Resource Utilization to keep costs under control.
Elon Musk has also made appearances at past Mars Society conferences:
Musk may have been referring to the high upfront cost of rocket development in the leaked email. However, SpaceX president Gwenn Shotwell mentioned that the costs could be covered by additional revenue streams like Starlink’s satellite Internet service. Starlink currently has more than 500,000 reservations for service and is working with governments like Brazil and Chile to provide high-speed Internet to remote communities that have previously been neglected when developing Internet infrastructure.
That is, of course, in addition to lucrative contracts like development of the lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis Program and a multiple-launch deal with Axiom Space to send private astronauts to the International Space Station.
In the meantime, SpaceX has kept busy, with 23 launches between January 1 and September 30 2021 and nearly 30 launches projected by the end of 2021. That includes two crewed missions to the International Space Station and the recent launch of the asteroid redirect test mission DART.