🔒 SpaceX prepared to flourish as Musk plays less active role

By Loren Grush

One is hitting its numbers; the other keeps missing expectations. One is raising money at an ever-rising valuation; the other has been pummeled by the market. One has a highly capable No. 2 executive keeping it on track; the other is under fire about succession planning.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Tesla Inc. both count Elon Musk as chief executive officer. But whereas Tesla has withered since the boss embarked on his takeover of Twitter, SpaceX is flourishing — some even suggest that this is because of, rather than in spite of, its CEO playing a less-active role.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

SpaceX is preparing for a watershed year, aiming for as many as 100 flights. That pace of one roughly every three and a half days compares to the every-six-days clip the company pulled off in 2022. As soon as March, it will attempt the first-ever commercial spacewalk, where astronauts will dangle from a Dragon vessel approximately 700 kilometres (435 miles) above Earth. And it will soon try to reach orbit for the first time with what it hails as the most powerful rocket ever: Starship, the launch vehicle intended to one day reach the moon and Mars.

“More pics of Starship fully stacked on the orbital launch pad at Starbase”

 https://t.co/095WHWN1zX pic.twitter.com/pYzC9nQYSc— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 12, 2023

The closely held company recently valued at around $140 billion has been girding for all this activity with its less-present CEO delegating more to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. Since closing his Twitter acquisition in late October, Musk has been preoccupied with fixing operations and engineering issues at the San Francisco-based social media company, diminishing his involvement in day-to-day matters at SpaceX, according to current and former employees who asked not to be identified.

These people describe Musk as much more instrumental in setting the long-term vision for the company, including its goal to get to Mars. They say the CEO’s daily attention isn’t necessary — work flow for Falcon 9 launches, for example, have become fairly standardized over the years — and that when Musk’s focus is elsewhere, there’s some semblance of calm.

SpaceX and Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Extra work

When Musk is hyper-focused on daily operations, it can often lead to extra work — he’s inserted himself in projects and demanded changes for sometimes arbitrary reasons, former employees say.

“Elon Musk literally made the starship more pointy because of the movie “The Dictator” ????”

@elonmusk pic.twitter.com/OuLwaRUpqw — DogeDesigner (@cb_doge) July 15, 2022

For instance, current and former employees describe times that Musk has deemed certain hardware as having too many tubes, connectors, or wires, or just not generally fitting his preferred design aesthetic. He’s demanded that employees rework and simplify systems, leading employees to spend time justifying why certain parts exist or triggering major redesigns and work that can take weeks to accomplish. Sometimes, that work ultimately has to be reversed when components that were discarded ultimately are needed for the final design.

One former employee said the company will sometimes go through periodic hiring freezes when Musk turns his attention to SpaceX, as he’ll want final say on all new personnel. At the end of 2021, for example, multiple former employees say that Musk decided the company had too many employees and needed to downsize. Previously, he’s required that hiring managers prove an applicant’s exceptionality, prompting managers to try various methods, including asking for applicants’ SAT scores. During these periods, people are rarely hired, as Musk’s approval can be hard to come by.

Another former employee described a stressful weekend meeting before SpaceX flew human passengers for the first time, when the company was in an unspoken race with Boeing Co. to be the first to fly NASA astronauts to the space station.

One Friday night, Musk emailed the team working on Crew Dragon — SpaceX’s passenger spacecraft — to come in for an urgent meeting the next morning, early on a Saturday. When Musk arrived late, he quickly told the team that the launch timing couldn’t slip and they all had to work as hard as possible to stick to the schedule. He also told the team there were too many people working on the program. The brief conversation rattled the team members, who were trying to prioritize executing the mission as safely as possible.

The mission

Given this history, some current employees expressed relief about Musk’s recent focus on Twitter. With the CEO away, most of SpaceX’s executives report to Shotwell. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in December that he’d spoken with the COO about whether Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would detract from SpaceX’s work. “She assured me that it would not be a distraction to their mission,” Nelson said.

That mission — to make humanity multiplanetary — has been progressing in Boca Chica, Texas, where SpaceX has been working on Starship. Shotwell has been overseeing the project to a greater degree in recent months along with Mark Juncosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

In the early days of the Starship program, Musk was at SpaceX’s Starbase production facility in Boca Chica constantly, at times personally overseeing schedules and insisting on design changes, some employees say. Now, Juncosa, who was previously in charge of SpaceX’s internet-from-space initiative Starlink, has taken on that role, overseeing hardware development and the program schedule.

Meanwhile, Musk’s private jet hasn’t traveled to the airport near Starbase since Oct. 14, about two weeks before he closed the Twitter acquisition.

“Actually the last time N628TS was in Brownsville was nearly 3 months ago. ????”

(Last was 10/14/22) https://t.co/hSOXQMyFFD — ElonJet but Delayed (@ElonJetNextDay) January 6, 2023

Juncosa’s takeover of Starship responsibilities has coincided with an increased focus on launch reliability and more risk-reduction testing, according to current employees. The earliest years of the vehicle’s development were riskier, with SpaceX launching multiple suborbital test flights every couple of months, with some ending in crash landings that scattered debris across nearby wetlands. On the same day Musk closed his acquisition of Twitter, The Information reported on a testing mishap at Starbase two weeks earlier that could have injured roughly two dozen crew members, which the publication said raised concerns about rushing workers and cutting corners.

Since a Starship flight in May 2021 that ended with a successful landing, SpaceX hasn’t performed another test launch. The next major flight will be Starship’s first orbital launch attempt — a major milestone that has been repeatedly delayed. Musk recently suggested that this could occur as early as February or March, though his launch date predictions are often aspirational.

Reliability will be key for Starship moving forward, as it’s set to play a major role in NASA’s campaign to put humans back on the moon for the first time in 50 years. The agency has selected the vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface in missions slated for as soon as early 2025. SpaceX has big plans of its own for the rocket, including using it to launch future Starlink internet satellites.

Thanks to well-placed executives behind Musk, SpaceX can forge ahead at a brisk pace without its leader in the building. But at the end of the day, they’re responsible for executing his vision. And it’s only a matter of time until he’s back.

To contact the author of this story: Loren Grush in Austin at [email protected]

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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