SpaceX reorganizes Starlink satellite operation, reportedly with high-level firings

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SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, sending the first two Starlink demonstration satellites into orbit. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX says it has reorganized its satellite development operation in Redmond, Wash., to accelerate design and testing of the elements for its planned satellite broadband constellation — and high-level departures were reportedly part of the shift.

Word of the reorg came in response to a Reuters report, quoting unnamed SpaceX employees as saying that CEO Elon Musk traveled to the Redmond facility in June to fire at least seven members of the satellite program’s senior management team.

Musk was reportedly unhappy with the pace of the testing program, which was highlighted by the launch of two demonstration satellites in February. The casualties were said to include the SpaceX vice president in charge of the satellite program, Rajeev Badyal, a veteran of Microsoft and Hewlett Packard; and satellite designer Mark Krebs, who led Google’s aircraft and spacecraft teams before coming to SpaceX.

Efforts to contact Badyal and Krebs were unsuccessful today. Krebs’ LinkedIn webpage has been updated to reflect his departure from SpaceX in June; Badyal’s page has not been updated.

In response to GeekWire’s inquiry, SpaceX spokeswoman Eva Behrend sent this statement:

“The SpaceX Redmond office is an essential part of the company’s efforts to build a next-generation satellite network that can link the world with reliable and affordable broadband service, reaching those who have never been connected before.

“Given the success of our recent Starlink demonstration satellites, we have incorporated lessons learned and reorganized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order. This is a very similar approach of rapid iteration in design and testing which led to the success of Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon.”

Over the past few months, SpaceX has consolidated its Seattle-area operation at Redmond Ridge Corporate Center. SpaceX’s job listings for Redmond once amounted to more than 100, but that number has fallen to a couple of dozen.

The Starlink demonstration satellites are continuing to operate in orbit, and in May, Musk said the satellites were providing enough connectivity “to play fast-response video games.” He also said there’d be another iteration before finalizing the satellite design.

SpaceX has been aiming to offer the first version of its internet service in the 2020-2021 time frame. Eventually, thousands of satellites would be placed in low Earth orbit for global broadband coverage.

Starlink figures prominently in SpaceX’s future financial plans. When Musk announced the project during a 2015 Seattle visit, he said the revenue generated from satellite services would go toward funding his dream of building a city on Mars. And in May, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the satellite business could become more lucrative than the launch business.

But SpaceX isn’t alone in its satellite broadband ambitions: An international consortium called OneWeb is aiming to put its own broadband constellation into space with more than a billion dollars in backing from Airbus, SoftBank, Virgin Group and other partners. OneWeb’s first launch is expected to to occur within the next six months.

Airbus, SoftBank and OneWeb’s founder, Greg Wyler, are also among the backers of a shadowy Seattle-area venture called EarthNow that is planning to provide real-time, on-demand satellite video from orbit. EarthNow’s investors also include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

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