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To the moon and beyond
November 05, 2018
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SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk flew to the Seattle area in June for meetings with engineers leading a satellite launch project crucial to his space company’s growth. Within hours of landing, Musk had fired at least seven members of the programme’s senior management team at the Redmond, Washington, office, the culmination of disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites, according to the two SpaceX employees with direct knowledge of the situation.

Known for pushing aggressive deadlines, Musk quickly brought in new managers from SpaceX headquarters in California to replace a number of the managers he fired.

Their mandate: launch SpaceX’s first batch of US-made satellites by the middle of next year, the sources said. The management shakeup and the launch timeline, previously unreported, illustrate how quickly Musk wants to bring online SpaceX’s Starlink programme, which is competing with OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat to be first to market with a new satellite-based Internet service.

Those services — essentially a constellation of satellites that will bring high-speed Internet to rural and suburban locations globally — are key to generating the cash that privately-held SpaceX needs to fund Musk’s real dream of developing a new rocket capable of flying paying customers to the moon and eventually trying to colonise Mars.

“It would be like rebuilding the Internet in space,” Musk told an audience in 2015 when he unveiled Starlink.

“The goal would be to have a majority of long-distance Internet traffic go over this network.” But the program is struggling to hire and retain staff, the employees said. Currently, about 300 SpaceX employees work on Starlink in Redmond, the sources said.

According to GeekWire, Musk said in 2015 the Redmond operation would have “probably several hundred people, maybe a thousand people” after 3-4 years in operation. So far this year, about 50 employees left the company “on their own accord,” one of the SpaceX employees said, though the reason for those departures was unclear.

JOB OPENINGS

Overall, SpaceX employs more than 6,000 staff. As of Tuesday, there were 22 job openings — including a job making espresso drinks — for the Redmond office, according to SpaceX’s website.

SpaceX spokeswoman Eva Behrend told Reuters the Redmond office remains an essential part of the company’s efforts to build a next-generation satellite network. “Given the success of our recent Starlink demonstration satellites, we have incorporated lessons learned and re-organized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order,” Behrend said.

She had no further comment on the reorganisation or the launch window, but noted the strategy was similar to the rapid iteration in design and testing which led to the success of its rockets.

Among the managers fired from the Redmond office was SpaceX Vice President of Satellites Rajeev Badyal, an engineering and hardware veteran of Microsoft Corp and Hewlett-Packard, and top designer Mark Krebs, who worked in Google’s satellite and aircraft division, the employees said.

Krebs declined to comment, and Badyal did not respond to requests for comment. The management shakeup followed in-fighting over pressure from Musk to speed up satellite testing schedules, one of the sources said. SpaceX’s Behrend offered no comment on the matter. Culture was also a challenge for recent hires, a second source said.

A number of the managers had been hired from nearby technology giant Microsoft, where workers were more accustomed to longer development schedules than Musk’s famously short deadlines. “Rajeev wanted three more iterations of test satellites,” one of the sources said.

“Elon thinks we can do the job with cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner.” A billionaire and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Inc , Musk is known for ambitious projects ranging from auto electrification and rocket-building to high-speed transit tunnels.

A Musk trust owns 54 per cent of the outstanding stock of SpaceX, according to a 2016 US Securities and Exchange Commission filing, SpaceX’s most recent.

JUNE 2019 LAUNCH GOAL

SpaceX has said it would launch its satellites in phases through 2024. It goal of having Internet service available in 2020 is “pretty much on target” with an initial satellite launch by mid-2019, one of the sources said. OneWeb aims for a first launch between December and February 2019, while Telesat was targeting 2022 for broadband services.

SpaceX employees told Reuters that two Starlink test satellites launched in February, dubbed Tintin A and B, were functioning as intended. The company is refining the orbital path of the satellites after the US Federal Communications Commission, which oversees satellites in orbit, approved a request from SpaceX to expand Tintins’ altitude range, one of the sources said. The FCC confirmed SpaceX’s modifications, which have not been reported previously, but declined further comment.

“We’re using the Tintins to explore that modification,” one of the SpaceX employee sources said. “They’re happy and healthy and we’re talking with them every time they pass a ground station, dozens of times a day.” SpaceX engineers have used the two test satellites to play online video games at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and the Redmond office, the source said. “We were streaming 4k YouTube and playing ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ from Hawthorne to Redmond in the first week,” the person added.

Pushing boundaries

Europe’s Airbus on Friday delivered the “powerhouse” for NASA’s new Orion Spaceship that will take astronauts to the Moon and beyond in coming years, hitting a key milestone that should lead to hundreds of millions of euros in future orders.

Engineers at the Airbus plant in Bremen, Germany on Thursday carefully packed the spacecraft into a special container that will fly aboard a huge Antonov cargo plane to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a first step on its way to deep space.

In Florida, the module will be joined with the Orion crew module built by Lockheed Martin, followed by over a year of intensive testing before the first three-week mission orbiting the Moon is launched in 2020, albeit without people.

Future production of Orion and the European module could result in billions of dollars of new orders for the companies involved in coming years, said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations for NASA.

“This is the system that will enable humans to move sustainably into deep space ... and leave the Earth-Moon system for the first time ever,” he said.

Current plans are for a first crewed mission in 2022, but NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) then plan to launch a manned mission every year, making the Orion project both politically and economically important at a time when China and other countries are racing to gain a foothold in space.

Airbus’s European Service Module will provide propulsion, power, thermal control and consumables to the Orion crew module, marking the first time that NASA will use a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft.

“This is a very big step. The delivery and the flight to America are just the beginning of a journey that will ultimately take us to 60,000 miles beyond the Moon, further than any human has ever flown before,” Oliver Juckenhoefel, vice president of on-orbit services and exploration for Airbus, told Reuters.

Orion is part of a growing push to put humans back on the Moon, where the unexpected discovery of water has energised scientists, with rapid technological developments such as 3D printing paving the way for lunar-based infrastructure, such as data server relay stations, in coming years.

“It sounds like science fiction, but I’m convinced it’s coming, and the only question for us in Europe is whether we want to be part of it or not,” Juckenhoefel said. “In industry, we have to be careful that we don’t miss the boat.”

NASA’s Gerstenmaier said ESA was interested in participating in a so-called “lunar gateway” with an eye to landing humans on the Moon again around 2028, and providing a base for travel to Mars and beyond.

Airbus won a 390-million euro ($446.12 million) contract to build the first ESM module in 2014, and is working on a second order valued at 200 million euros. Now it is negotiating with ESA for further orders that could add up to a billion euros, Juckenhoefel said.

Mike Hawes, who runs the $11 billion Orion programme for Lockheed, underscored the importance of the programme for future exploration of deep space. He said Lockheed was negotiating with NASA for up to 12 follow-on missions that could result in billions of dollars of new orders, while working to halve the cost of future spacecraft.

Reuters
 

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