Elon Musk shakes up SpaceX management in a race to provide satellite-based internet services

Known for his aggressive management style, Elon Musk is pushing hard to become the first internet-based service provider – a move that could make a huge splash in the U.S. and global broadband market.

According to two employees of SpaceX with direct knowledge of the matter at hand, Elon Musk,

SpaceX’s Chief Executive Officer, known for aggressive deadlines, had fired at least 7 members of SpaceX’s senior management team at its Redmond office in Washing over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites.

Musk was quick to bring in new managers who were given the mandate of launching SpaceX’s first batch of U.S.-made satellites by the middle of 2018, said sources.

These events underscores the pace of growth Musk is pushing for to bring SpaceX’s Starlink program online. The program is competing with OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat to be first to market with a new satellite-based Internet service.

The Starlink program, which essentially is a constellation of satellites that will provide high-speed Internet to rural and suburban locations globally, plays a key role in generating cash that SpaceX desperately 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,” said Musk to 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.”

Among the managers who were fired from the Redmond office was SpaceX Vice President of Satellites Rajeev Badyal, an engineering and hardware veteran of Microsoft Corp and Hewlett-Packard, as well as top designer Mark Krebs, who worked in Google’s satellite and aircraft division, said employees.

Krebs declined to comment, and Badyal did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the challenges managers face at SpaceX are short deadlines that Musk is famous for. A number of managers, who have prior experience at Microsoft, say they are accustomed to longer development schedules.

According to one of the sources, “Rajeev wanted three more iterations of test satellites,” while “Elon thinks we can do the job with cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner.”

Musk’s aggressive management style has paid off. According to one of the sources, SpaceX’s goal of having Internet service available in 2020 is “pretty much on target” with an initial satellite launch by mid-2019.

SpaceX’s competition, OneWeb aims to launch its first satellite between December 2018 and February 2019, while Telesat was targeting 2022 for broadband services.

According to SpaceX employees, the two Starlink test satellites launched in February 2018, 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, said a source.

The FCC has confirmed SpaceX’s modifications, which have so far not been reported, but declined further comment.

“We’re using the Tintins to explore that modification,” said a SpaceX employee on the condition of anonymity. “They’re happy and healthy and we’re talking with them every time they pass a ground station, dozens of times a day.”

The company’s engineers have used the two test satellites to play online video games, said a source.

“We were streaming 4k YouTube and playing ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ from Hawthorne to Redmond in the first week,” said a source.

According to a FCC filing, SpaceX is aiming to provide Internet services by linking its satellites to ground stations and mountable terminals about the size of a pizza box at homes and businesses.

Although SpaceX’s model of reusing rockets has generated cash, it is not enough to cover the nearly $5 billion development cost to build its Big Falcon Rocket that Musk wants one day to fly to Mars.

“There had to be a much bigger idea for generating cash to basically realize the Mars plans,” said a SpaceX employee. “What better idea than to put Comcast out of business?”


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