According to regulatory documents seen by Prime Unicorn Index, SpaceX finished a $500M funding round begun in December 2018 and kicked off a second campaign seeking an additional $500M earlier this month.
Altogether, SpaceX appears to be on track to secure $1 billion in fresh capital in the last six months alone, a trend that that may well continue as the company pushes forth into new and capital-intensive phases of Starlink and Starship development. In Boca Chica, a flood of SpaceX engineers and technicians have descended on the area to build the first full-scale steel prototypes of Starship and the major facilities needed to support the vehicles, all from scratch. Across the West Coast of the US, a separate SpaceX team has simultaneously transitioned from prototyping and developing satellites to building a factory to mass-produce them and may be less than six weeks away from launching the first operational batch of Starlink spacecraft.
Giant rockets, giant funding
Both massive, perilous, and largely unprecedented ventures in their own right, Starship (formerly BFR) and Starlink also happen to be extremely capital-intensive, a more or less fundamental consequence of the stages of their development and expansion. Both spent many years in pure research and development phases, tinkering and experimenting with different ideas and technologies on the ground in an effort to conceptualize what exactly their final forms ought to be. This aspect of the BFR program has been extremely visible over the last three years as SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk’s goals underwent continuous semi-annual changes, often intentionally broadcasted to the public in livestreamed events.
After appearing to finally settle on the quasi-final form of BFR (renamed to Starship/Super Heavy), SpaceX has actually begun to build and test the first full-scale, integrated prototype of the spacecraft (Starhopper) and is simultaneously building what aims to be the first orbital Starship prototype. At the same time, its propulsion system of choice – known as Raptor – has entered into serial production back at SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory, while also supporting the first Starhopper hop test in early April and preparing to continue separate ground testing.
Thousands of satellites, billions of dollars
In February 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its first Starlink satellites, two prototypes meant to test a bevy of technologies the company was attempting to build (or at least utilize) for the first time. Despite hints and reports of some problems on orbit, SpaceX firmly holds that both satellites were extremely successful in their task of proving out new technologies like electric thrusters and phased-array antennas and are still safely operating today. Just four months after those prototypes launched, CEO Elon Musk took the extraordinary step of flying to Redmond, Washington to personally challenge a number of executives he believed were operating far too sluggishly. According to secondhand reports, many of them refused to expedite the program as Musk wanted them to, resulting in their immediate firings. The challenge that triggered the organizational upheaval: launch the first operational batch of Starlink satellites before the end of June 2019, twelve months away at the time.
Five months after Musk’s challenge, SpaceX submitted a request to the FCC to modify its original Starlink constellation license, halving the orbit of the first thousand or so satellites to 550 km (340 mi) and significantly simplifying the technology on the first several dozen to be launched. As a result of the strategic changes made, SpaceX is already planning to launch its first group of Starlink satellites as early as mid-May, with perhaps one or several additional launches on the books for 2019. To an extent, the first 75 Starlink satellites and their six ground stations will be a nearly full-fidelity second prototype. Instead of a minimalist development platform like Tintin A and B, the first 75 satellites should offer opportunities to actually test the operations of a large constellation of spacecraft while also demonstrating something close to the internet connectivity the full constellation is meant to offer.
Development to production
That SpaceX is attempting to raise huge amounts of capital should come as no surprise. For almost any commercial venture on Earth that is attempting to introduce a real product from nothing, the process of going from concept, design, and testing to building a final product at scale is both extraordinarily difficult and extremely expensive. Tesla famously went through “manufacturing hell” to go from Model 3 prototypes to a mass-producible finished product, while countless other ventures don’t even make it that far (i.e. vaporware). By far the most challenging aspect of this transition is moving from a phase focused predominately on development to one focused predominately on production.
Due to an extremely unorthodox approach to building the first steel Starship and Super Heavy prototypes, quite literally choosing to do so outside and without shelter, the BFR program is probably less extreme for the time being. However, the transformation needed for Starlink to progress is intense, requiring the satellite team to essentially build a factory from scratch and begin mass-producing high-performance satellites as quickly as possible. The 75-satellite buffer should ease the pain a bit and offer a sort of trial run as SpaceX makes that major transition, but the fact remains that an unprecedented number (thousands) of satellites will need to be built and launched at an equally unprecedented pace and cost-per-unit.
The $500M raised since December 2018 will likely be a major help for SpaceX’s often-shoestrung development programs. The decision to open a second $500M funding round just months after the first also bodes well for demand, indicating that it shouldn’t be long before this newest round is itself completed. Meanwhile, Starlink’s first-launch milestone is rapidly approaching, while SpaceX’s South Texas team continue to make progress on the first orbital-class Starship prototype. Onward and upwards
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