SpaceX’s vice president of propulsion, Will Heltsley, and vice president of mission and launch operations, Lee Rosen, have left the company. The two VPs have worked for the company since 2009 and 2013, respectively.
SpaceX’s senior director of mission and launch operations, Ricky Lim, has also left the company. He had begun working for SpaceX in 2008.
Anonymous sources told CNBC that Heltsley had been taken off development for the Raptor engine due to lack of progress.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that SpaceX’s rocket engines, while much improved, would need to be further upgraded to make life interplanetary.
Jacob McKenzie has taken over the leadership position for rocket development in the wake of Heltsley’s departure. McKenzie has worked for SpaceX for more than six years.
When combined with Musk’s tweets, the departures could be interpreted as a response to Musk’s frustration with the pace of development. For instance, SpaceX had hoped to conduct an orbital test flight of the Starship prototype SN20 over the summer, but it has now been delayed to January 2022 at the earliest.
This may be partly due to regulatory delays. SpaceX apparently likes to give the impression that nearly everything is ready except regulators’ signing off on the paperwork, including conducting a firing test for a variation of the Raptor engine that is designed for use in the outer space environment.
The FAA is currently conducting an environmental review for the SN20 orbital test and may be taking its time due to the loss of four prototypes in a row during high-altitude testing in the first half of 2021. Complaints about allegedly excessive road and beach closures and impact on local ecology may also be factors.
Most of those who commented on an FAA public hearing hosted on Zoom were supportive of SpaceX’s efforts, however. They agree with Musk’s vision of settlements on Mars as a hedge against an eventual extinction event like the dinosaur-killing asteroid strike of 65 million years ago.
Neither SpaceX nor Musk went into details about any potential internal issues that may be holding up the development of the Raptor engine or why its mission and launch operations VP and senior director both left. The departures may simply mean that they decided to move on to other opportunities.
Elon Musk does have a reputation for being a demanding boss. Most recently, he sent an email to Tesla’s managers saying that they should execute his orders, ask for clarification, give him a legitimate reason why he’s wrong, or leave the company.
In a lighter email, though, he also said that he’s okay with music in the workplace as long as it doesn’t compromise safety and workers generally agree on what to listen to.
If you are at all curious about whether the positions of the departed senior staffers are still open, be sure to check out SpaceX’s career page. Elon Musk especially anticipates ramping up hiring for both SpaceX and Tesla in Texas with progress being made on factories owned by both companies.