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Musk shakes up Raptor engine development

Capitalism in space: Based on all the reports I’ve read, Elon Musk this past weekend did a major shake-up of the management that was running the Raptor engine development, apparently focused on the need to be able to mass produce these engines at a very high rate to allow numerous test flights in the coming year.

More here, including this company email from Musk:

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.

The management shakeup was as follows:

This ‘senior management’ that left is likely referring to Will Heltsley, former SpaceX senior vice president of propulsion. As CNBC reported, he left Raptor production due to a lack of progress. In addition, former SpaceX vice president of mission and launch operation Lee Rosen and senior director of mission and launch operations Rick Lim have left the company. Raptor engine production is now being led by Jacob Mackenzie, who has been with the company for over six years.

The reports imply that the engine itself is in trouble, but I do not think that is the issue. Instead, as Musk has said many times, more important than developing new technology is developing the efficient manufacturing processes that will allow the company to take advantage of that technology. It appears the manufacturing part of Raptor had not been covered well by the now disposed management.

SpaceX not only needs a working reliable Raptor engine, it needs to be able to mass produce them in the hundreds, quickly. This is the challenge that apparently the previous management failed to face. Musk is now refocusing Raptor development around this need.

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  • On the bright side, that’s a good problem to have.

  • Geoman

    You’d think Musk would be well aware of ramping difficulties in taking a complex product to higher production volumes.

  • Musk builds Time Machine to go back in time and hire Henry Ford.

  • Gary

    I suspect Musk is well aware of the challenges. He just wants to make sure EVERYONE in his chain of command is aware and aware that he expects them to do things better. He wants them to revolutionize manufacturing the same way the company has revolutionized re-usuability in the launch vehicles.

  • Jason Lewis

    I suspect that the problem is with manufacturing and not development. There’s a fascinating interview by Tim Dodd (Everyday Astronaut) with Elon Musk that includes some discussion about the incredible difficulties in manufacturing. I work in semiconductor manufacturing and I concur.

    Here are some quotes from a discussion about Raptor manufacturing:

    “Manufacturing is underrated and design is overrated. …People generally think that there is this eureka moment… you come up with this idea and that’s it.”

    “[with] a design like this, literally, a 1000%, maybe 10,000% more work goes into the production system than the thing itself… How much effort we put into designing Raptor versus designing the manufacturing system… it’s 10 to 100 times more effort to design the manufacturing system than the engine.

    “The amount of effort that goes into the design rounds to zero compared to the amount of effort that goes into the manufacturing system.”

  • George C

    There is a great video that tours the AST factory. The guide mentions several times how they lead designers to use the sheet metal cutting and forming lines for parts . Don’t know much about their engines besides the use of electric motors to drive the propellant pumps.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Another Raptor-related problem is the human-rating of the Starship system, which is liable to take years, because of the lack of a launch escape system and the unique skydiver landing method. It may well be that the Starship can be human-rated for trips to the moon in a year or so, but only if it’s crew embarks in LEO from a Falcon/Dragon, and disembarks to same on return.

    Although a ferry system like this may seem to be a way to gain profitable use of Raptor/Starship earlier, it has the drawback of keeping SpaceX in the Falcon/Dragon business longer than it may want to be! I wonder if Falcon/Dragon will turn out to be the blockbuster product that is almost fatally successful for SpaceX?! In addition to multiple tanker missions for every Starship lunar mission, there will have to be (at least) one Falcon up-ferry and one down-ferry, and likely more. That’s a lotta rockets!!

  • Richard M

    “The reports imply that the engine itself is in trouble, but I do not think that is the issue.”

    At some point, though…if your design is such that you can’t figure out an effective way to manufacture it in the needed quantity and time, the design *might* be a problem.

    That aside, I am struck by the use of the word “reliable,” not least because rumors and comments by Elon over the last year keep pointing to reliability at the desired flight cadence as an issue they have been contending with.

    Anyhow, Elon did add more tweets today. He insisted, in response to a query about the Raptor 2, that “It’s getting fixed.” Followed by:

    “If a severe global recession were to dry up capital availability / liquidity while SpaceX was losing billions on Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible. GM & Chrysler went BK last recession. “Only the paranoid survive.” – Grove”

    “The magnitude of the Starship program is not widely appreciated. It is designed to extend life to Mars (and the moon), which requires ~1000 times more payload to orbit than all current Earth rockets combined.”

  • Col Beausabre

    “You can have it 1) Good 2) Cheap 3) Quick – Pick two of the three”

  • Jeff Wright

    You got that right, Col.
    But how many times have guys cheated on their steady….a little high-maint’ takes forever to put her face on-SLS-and then bring home the dyed platinum blond stripper from Boca Chica’s Crusty Ankle only to find it crazy…Beausabre, you know the rest.

    Comes from all that meth’ she does.

    Glushko hated LH2, yet hydrogen engines run cool. The SSME equiv’ RD-0120 had no issues-where the hydrocarbon RD-170 gave him fits with burn throughs even with his old trick of multiple combustion chambers.

    But what do Alabamians know about building rockets?

  • pzatchok

    “You can have it 1) Good 2) Cheap 3) Quick – Pick two of the three”

    Or you can have it 1)good enough 20 cheap enough and 3)quick enough

  • john hare

    ””But what do Alabamians know about building rockets?”””’

    Apparently not much as they are trying* to use antique SSME and solids from the 70s.

    *without visible success

  • Jeff Wright

    We’ll see. Aesop’s wisdom of slow and steady holds true even today. SLS is ahead now. The teething is over. Production, baby.

  • Questioner

    These are really amazing processes that are going on at SpaceX. It seems to be boiling beneath the surface. I wouldn’t have thought, although I’m following the Starship project pretty closely. But now the somewhat derogatory remarks from Musk, which he made during the factory tour for Tim Dodd about the current Raptor variant, make sense.

    Musk is a man who always walks on the line between madness and genius with his actions. This shows his apocalyptic style of communication. I said years ago that if Musk should fail, then only on a large scale and then primarily to himself or his own requirements.

    If he does not achieve such a high level of operational reliability with this rocket engine that previously seemed unattainable for liquid rocket engines, the Starship project has failed, at least as a manned variant. This is that variant that is important for Musk. I am humble and would consider a unmanned space transport system that is fully reusable in all parts at low cost alreay as a huge success.

  • wayne

    “Elon Musk and Sheldon’s Idea….”
    Young Sheldon Season 1

  • wayne

    and the classic….

    Elon Musk ? & Akira The Don
    “If You Don’t Make Stuff, There Is No Stuff”
    June 2020

  • John hare

    SLS teething is over???? A never flown kludge from antique parts??? That’s not slow and steady, that’s stop and reverse, charitably speaking.

  • Col Beausabre

    But what do Alabamians know about building rockets?

    Nothing. During Huntsville’s glory years, the brains of the operation were a bunch of sheep dipped Germans led by an SS Major who was a war criminal. And past 1960, it didn’t design or build a single rocket – Atlas was designed and built by Convair, Titan by Martin, Saturn by Boeing, Noth American and Douglas. The godawful Shuttle by Rockwell. Marshall has been, at best, a subcontractor, with Houston and NASA HQ in Dc running the show

  • Edward

    What caught my eye is that SpaceX’s business model for Starlink depends upon a Starship launch rate of twice per month by the end of next year. The engines are not the only point of failure for that goal. The fuel and oxygen will also be needed in large quantities. Presumably they have been working this problem but the engine problem seems to be a new surprise for them.

  • Questioner

    And something we shouldn’t forget either. To date we have only seen one successful landing of a Starshhip prototype, namely that of SN 15. That’s not much. Although SN 15 and SN 16 were available for further flight attempts, Elon Musk decided not to use them in favor of accelerating the overall program and concentrated on orbital flight. So there are also risks here.

  • Jeff Wright

    There is another solution-Falcon Super Heavy. He might even do a Saturn IB with them…perhaps a methalox centaur with only one Raptor Vac to get next gen Starlinks up there paying for themselves-and with them no longer being tied at the hip with Raptor as much, Elon has time to test and catch up.

  • Questioner

    Neutron Rocket | Development Update

  • I saw that Everyday Astronaut video when it came out. He knows this is hard, so I wouldn’t expect problems to surprise him. There are some interesting stories about Tesla production in that video, too.

    That makes me think that either the management was not being “fully transparent” with Musk, so he was surprised when he checked in-depth, or that the same problem was holding things up time after time.

    Despite having applied for a Space X job, I’m not sure I’d like to work there. Musk’s management style is, shall we say, intense.

  • Questioner


    I think it is very likely that Elon Musk will fail with his plans to colonize Mars. But can this man be satisfied with smaller plans?

  • Matt in AZ


    I considered applying myself a few years back, but at the time this would have meant working at Hawthorne, and I just couldn’t stomach the thought of living in and driving through L.A. My current 100-mile roundtrip Phoenix commute is far preferable to that madness, and the living situation in L.A. has only grown horrifically worse since then too. Also, it looks like many of SpaceX’s employees skew younger – all the better to not burn out as fast!

  • Gary

    Another way of looking at this would be, if the managers of SLS and Webb had taken this kind of attitude toward those projects, both might have been accomplished already and much lower cost.

  • Jeff Wright

    Musk could still play a role in humans to Mars. Forget politics for a moment. Elon launches two Super Heavies and a Falcon Heavy. NASA launches SLS, Europe an Ariane 5, Russia a Proton, China an LM-5 and CZ-9. That 632 tons of payload-enough for a Mars ship?

  • Gary

    I may have missed this, but looks like another hitch in the SLS schedule. Doesn’t sound too serious, but may delay launch further.

    From Ars Technica:

    “ There’s an issue with an SLS engine controller. This past weekend, rumors emerged about a problem with the controller for one of the four RS-25 engines that power the Space Launch System. NASA has not officially commented, but Aviation Week’s Irene Klotz spoke with Aerojet’s RS-25 program manager Jeff Zotti. Troubleshooting on the problem began on November 22, Aviation Week reported.
    Schedule impacts yet to be determined … If necessary, “replacing a line or a component … we’re probably talking about multiple days. Replacing an engine, we’re probably talking about multiple weeks,” Zotti told the publication. “On top of that, we have to assess what that does and how that affects the vehicle and the integration activities that are going on,” he added. All of that must be factored into a potential delay of the launch, presently scheduled for February 12. A summer launch for the SLS now seems far more likely than spring.”

  • Jeff Wright

    Maybe Elon could build another plant and have them compete.

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