Reuters is reporting that SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite constellation project experienced significant organizational upheaval earlier this year, triggered by fundamental disagreements between CEO Elon Musk and executives overseeing Starlink as to how exactly SpaceX should approach the complex system’s development.
Despite the report’s primary focus on reorganization and Musk’s decision to simply fire 5+ key executives, SpaceX employees that spoke with Reuters were of the opinion that the two demo satellites – named Tintin A and B – are operating nominally in orbit more than half a year after launch.
The 2 test sats launched in Feb, Tintin A and B, seem to be healthy. "We’re talking with them every time they pass a ground station, dozens of times a day," one employee said. In the first week they streamed "4k YouTube and played ‘Counter-Strike: GO’ from Hawthorne to Redmond."
— Joey Roulette (@joroulette) October 31, 2018
Musk apparently believed that Starlink’s development timeline ought to be far shorter than certain senior executives overseeing the program were planning for. As a result of continuing success with the first two prototype satellites that launched in March 2018, a SpaceX engineer paraphrased Musk as being of the opinion that Starlink “can do the job with cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner.”
Rajeev Badyal, Vice President of SpaceX’s satellite program before being fired by Musk in June 2018, apparently wanted another three full iterations of prototype satellites to be launched and tested prior to beginning serious mass-production and launching the first real batch of Starlink satellites. While his extremely cautious approach may have had undeniable long-term benefits, it would also be a major hindrance in a field now rife with competitors like Telesat, OneWeb, LeoSat, and more, all eager to be first to offer internet services from low Earth orbit (LEO).
Prior to joining SpaceX in 2014, Badyal – like dozens of others now working on SpaceX’s Starlink constellation – worked at Microsoft for almost two decades, developing the consumer electronics and software company’s hardware programs (Zune, Xbox, Surface, etc.). In retrospect, it may not come as a huge surprise that a senior hardware development manager at Microsoft might be moderately risk-averse or at least methodical – while Surface and other more modern hardware programs have more functional iterative life cycles (usually annual), Xbox infamously spent nearly seven years between the launch of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
On the ground hardware side of Starlink development, user terminals, ground terminals, and other high-volume networking equipment could certainly benefit from someone like Badyal’s extensive experience developing high-volume consumer electronics like Xbox, but the Starlink satellites themselves are a different story. As a technology essentially without precedent, it could ultimately be almost anachronistically expensive to ‘refine’ the design of constellations of hundreds or thousands of high-bandwidth internet satellites before ever actually building and operating such a system.
A clash of approaches – Musk vs. Silicon Valley
What Musk instead seems to prefer – as demonstrated through his strategic direction of Tesla and SpaceX – is an approach where hardware development projects explicitly avoid striving for perfection with the first general iteration of a new system. Tesla did not spend years prototyping and performing limited tests in secret before building Model 3 as their first car ever – high-volume desirable electric vehicles simply did not exist. With SpaceX, Musk chose to explicitly develop a very small operational rocket – Falcon 1 – rather than very tediously attempting to go from scratch to Falcon 9 or BFR.
For Starlink, a Musk-style development program would fast-track a bare-minimum baseline for the satellite constellation and its ground systems, mass-producing and launching hardware that would inevitably be lacking in many ways but would still be able to act as a proving ground for the broader concepts at stake. One step further, the FCC’s Starlink constellation grant depends on an odd but unwavering requirement that SpaceX (or any other prospective LEO constellation-operator) launch at least 50% of all of any planned constellation within six years of receiving a license.
For SpaceX, that means that the basic ability to commercially operate Starlink is fundamentally at risk unless the company can somehow launch a minimum of 2213 (and up to ~5950) Starlink satellites between 2018 and 2024, an almost unfathomable challenge. Assuming ~500kg per satellite and perhaps 20 satellites per Falcon 9 launch, completing 50% of Starlink by 2024 would demand – without interruption – a minimum of one launch every two weeks for five years, mid-2019 to mid-2024. As such, every month spent prototyping and refining can essentially be viewed as a month where SpaceX didn’t launch dozens of Starlink satellites in pursuit of initial operational capabilities.
The news coming from Reuters’ reporting is ultimately a very positive look at Starlink, aside from Musk’s characteristically brusque and uncompromising approach to program management and leadership. Employees spoke proudly of the operational health and overall success of the two Tintin satellites already on orbit, noting that “they’re happy and healthy [and functioning as intended], and we’re talking with them [dozens of times a day] every time they pass a ground station”. Contrary to tenuous evidence to that suggested one of the two satellites had suffered an anomaly, preventing it from operating its electric thrusters, it appears that both satellites are doing just fine.
Up next for Starlink is the launch of a second batch of demonstration satellites, expected to occur “in short order” according to an official SpaceX comment on the matter.
“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.” – SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend
Musk’s ultimate hope with this reorganization is to push Starlink to begin operational satellite launches as early as mid-2019, an ambitious goal to say the least. Understandably, the intent with such an expedited schedule would be to continuously modify, update, and improve Starlink satellite, terminal, and network designs at the same time as they are being built and operated. Much like SpaceX and Tesla, this helps to ensure that the ultimate result of development is a rapid initial product offering eventually followed by a highly-optimized ‘finished’ product.
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