Elon Musk's SpaceX has made significant strides this year, coasting off its relationship with the government as well as several of its advanced and cost-efficient production processes.
But while the company's planning to hit the ground running in 2022, it may have run into a bit of a snag.
Not the Best Shape Right Now
Late in November, reports confirmed that Musk expressed displeasure with the company's progress on the Starship rocket. The billionaire explained that SpaceX's rocket engine issues were worse than they'd anticipated - potentially presenting significant challenges for its bottom line.
In part, the letter read:
"As we have dug into the issues following exiting prior senior management, they have unfortunately turned out to be far more severe than was reported. There is no way to sugarcoat this. We need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster."
Musk was referring to the sudden exit of Will Heltsley, SpaceX's former Vice President of Propulsion, who left recently after spending over a decade with the company. Reports suggest Heltsley was removed from the development of Starship's Raptor engine, SpaceX replacing him with someone else.
Musk said SpaceX was making some progress with the Raptor engine even after Heltsley left the company. But, they still needed to completely overhaul their design workflows. Sadly, it seems like the problems at SpaceX are more than they initially envisaged.
A Lot At Stake for SpaceX
There is no overstating the Raptor engine's importance. It will be the primary propulsion source for Starship - SpaceX's massive reusable rocket being designed to carry payloads over even farther distances. The rocket is expected to be significantly larger than the Falcon 9 rocket, which SpaceX currently uses to handle most of its missions.
With SpaceX expected to handle more complex missions in 2022, the company hopes to get everything rolling - quickly. If the Raptor engine's development is deficient in any way, the company could fall behind schedule and lose out on several lucrative contracts.
Starship requires at least six Raptor engines to operate. But its first stage Super Heavy section requires at least 33 Raptor engines. It's easy to see why Musk is pushing against delays in engine development.
Issues with the Starship rocket could also affect SpaceX's cushy relationship with NASA. In April, the agency delivered a $2.9 billion contract to the company, planning to use the Starship as a lunar lander that could transport astronauts to the moon by 2025. SpaceX has been working round the clock, developing and testing prototypes for the Starship at its Boca Chica, Texas facility.
NASA's Artemis Project will work closely with SpaceX on the moon mission. But, if the private space company can't deliver quickly on Starship, its contract could be in jeopardy.
Is January Still Feasible?
The new concerning tone marks a significant departure from Musk's earlier attitude toward the Starship.
In November, the billionaire guested at a conference organized by the National Academies Space Studies Board and the Physics and Astronomy Board. Musk claimed that they'd ramped up work on the Starship and expected to launch its first orbital flight in early 2022.
At the conference, Musk claimed the only obstacle getting in SpaceX's way regarding the Starship would be regulatory concerns. The company was already doing well with development, flying Starship's 15th prototype back in May 2021. But the flight only reached 30,000 feet before returning to Earth.
Regulatory filings have reportedly shown that SpaceX's test flight in 2022 will take the Starship into orbit. Musk said at the conference that assembly was complete for the next prototype and its Super Heavy booster. Once they're done with launchpad development and tests, they should be clear for flight in January or February 2022.
The good news for SpaceX is that they still have years before Project Artemis is expected to begin - that is, if the project itself doesn't get stalled. So, they still have a broad window to build the Raptor engine. However, every month wasted is an opportunity missed. As SpaceX looks to assert its dominance in an industry that is quickly getting crowded, issues like these aren't quite what SpaceX needs.