Musk shakes up SpaceX in race to make satellite launch window

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 program’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 program, 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 colonize 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. 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-organised 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. 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. Another senior manager that left SpaceX was Kim Schulze, who was previously a development manager at Microsoft, one of the people said. Schulze did not respond to a request for comment. “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.

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 said 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 U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which oversees satellites in orbit, approved a request from SpaceX to expand Tintins’ altitude range, one of the sources said.