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This Week In Space: SpaceX good, SpaceX bad, crystal stars, and it's not aliens

The image on the left is something you’ve already seen if you looked at this column last week. That’s a render that SpaceX founder Elon Musk provided to give a sense of what the “hopper” being built at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas would look like when complete. Now check out the image on the right because … it’s complete. That’s not a render. It’s a photograph.

In real life, the “Star Hopper” looks a bit more wrinkly than its rendered prediction. That’s because the steel covering of the test craft is quite thin. The hopper is designed for low altitude tests, so it’s not beefed up to the standards required to handle either the heat of reentry or the stress of high speed flight. That’s especially true of those fins (which Musk says are not fins) which appear to be made of steel just over the thickness of Reynold’s Wrap. Musk insists that the actual two-part spacecraft, considering of what are now called the Super Heavy Booster and the Starship vehicle, will use thicker steel that comes closer to the smooth form of the render.

Still … it’s very much not bad. SpaceX also appears to be running ahead of schedule, and if things go well they’ve indicated that flights could begin in as little as four weeks. Seeing this thing take off and land vertically would be spectacular. And considering that it’s a whole new structure riding completely new engines, there’s also the possibility that we’ll see a spectacular landing in many, many small pieces. Exciting times.

However, some of the excitement at SpaceX this week is of the less desirable sort. SpaceX has let it be know that it’s cutting its workforce by around 10 percent. The official line is that the company is “focusing” in on the immediate tasks at hand, but it’s hard to interpret this in any way that doesn’t look like SpaceX is having trouble finding enough customers to power the company through the development of new vehicles. As a private company, SpaceX’s finances can be pretty opaque, but after several years of what seemed to be clear profits, in 2018 the company sought out a loan. They look to be going after another, larger loan in 2019.

Not so long ago, Musk conducted a general purge of management for the company’s ambitious plan to orbit a fleet of several thousand satellites to provide high bandwidth satellite Internet. But SpaceX really needs that project to come to fruition, because it promises to bring in the sort of dollars needed to keep on track with building rockets that are aimed at Mars.


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