A week ago, SpaceX launched astronauts for the first time. Instead, Musk urged SpaceX employees to accelerate progress on its next-generation Starship rocket “dramatically and immediately,” writing Saturday in a company-wide email seen by CNBC.
“Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship,” Musk wrote in the email.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Musk’s email.
His space company launched a pair of NASA astronauts on May 30, marking a historic first for SpaceX and a crucial step forward for the U.S. space program. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule carried the astronauts to orbit and on to the International Space Station. That mission is ongoing, as Musk noted, with the spacecraft set to return the astronauts to Earth in the next couple months.
The Falcon 9 rocket that launched the astronauts is the mainstay of SpaceX’s business, with 85 missions over the past decade. Starship represents the company’s aim to make obsolete even the cost-saving advances of its Falcon 9 fleet. Its Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable, as the company often lands the large “booster” stage of the rocket and recovers the rocket’s nose cone. But Musk’s goal is to make Starship fully reusable envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights.
Musk last year unveiled the Starship prototype, built of stainless steel and dwarfing the company’s existing spacecraft. SpaceX is developing Starship with the goal of launching as many as 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.
Although the company’s Starship development program in Boca Chica, Texas has suffered four dramatic setbacks. While SpaceX has made progress on each iteration, the most recent prototype exploded shortly after an engine test on May 29.
“We need to accelerate Starship progress,” Musk said in Saturday’s email.
Musk’s emphasis on Starship comes nine months after a controversial comment by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, just before SpaceX unveiled the latest prototype. The NASA chief declared his agency wanted “to see the same level of enthusiasm” for SpaceX launching NASA astronauts as there was for the Starship program, saying it was “time to deliver.”
At the time, Musk said that SpaceX “resources are overwhelmingly” focused on finishing development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Now, with SpaceX having delivered on the first part of its commitment to fly NASA astronauts, Musk is turning the company’s attention to Starship.
SpaceX has raised nearly $1.7 billion since the beginning of 2019, with its valuation rising to around $36 billion according to CNBC sources. The company has steadily raised funding as it developed three ambitious programs: the Crew Dragon spacecraft, its Starlink internet satellites and the massive Starship rocket.
The Starship program has seen prototypes pass several critical milestones but SpaceX has yet to begin flight testing its most recent design. A previous iteration, known as Starhopper, completed a short launch and landing flight test in August.