World / Science & Health

Musk shows off prototype of Mars-bound rocket but says SpaceX to shed 10% of workforce


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has unveiled the first pictures of a retro-looking rocket that may one day carry people to the moon and Mars.

Musk posted pictures on Twitter of the Starship Hopper prototype, which awaits its first flight test in Texas in the coming weeks.

“Starship test flight rocket just finished assembly at the @SpaceX Texas launch site. This is an actual picture, not a rendering,” he wrote on Thursday night.

The prototype — built in Boca Chica, Texas, along the Gulf Coast — is 9 yards (8 meters) in diameter but is shorter than the future rocket will be. Its first test flights — suborbital “hops” — could come in March or April.

An orbital prototype is expected in June. That version will be paired with a massive rocket booster known as the Super Heavy.

SpaceX has said the duo could one day transport people from city to city, as well as propel passengers around the moon, to the lunar surface and even to Mars and back.

SpaceX currently launches regular supply missions to the International Space Station using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule. It is now working on a new Dragon crew capsule that could start carrying people to the orbiting outpost later this year.

However, just a day after the announcement, SpaceX said it must lay off 10 percent of its more than 6,000 employees.

Musk said in a statement: “To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations. This means we must part ways with some talented and hardworking members of our team.”

He added that the trim was “only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead.”

The Los Angeles Times, citing an email sent to employees on Friday, said the company was offering those affected a minimum of eight weeks’ pay and other benefits, including career coaching and assistance with resumes.

Also Friday, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying 10 communications satellites.

SpaceX makes most of its money from multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA and satellite launches. In November it won authorization from U.S. officials to put nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit to boost cheap wireless internet access by the 2020s.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the company was raising $500 million from investors to help launch its satellite internet service.

Musk has risen to prominence with a series of ambitious ventures, especially Tesla, which has boosted production of its Model 3 electric car and has continued to enjoy strong demand for the vehicle.

Other Musk ventures include OpenAI, Neuralink and the Boring Co., which focuses on infrastructure and tunnels.

But Musk has also drawn plenty of criticism over unconventional and at times erratic behavior — after admitting last year that he has been struggling with exhaustion.

In an interview broadcast last month, Musk openly mocked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after agreeing to a $20 million fine to settle fraud charges the agency had brought over Musk’s quickly aborted effort to take Tesla private.

And in September, he raised eyebrows with an appearance on a podcast with comedian Joe Rogan, which saw him sip whiskey and smoke weed while musing at length about artificial intelligence, colonizing space, and the need to give love a chance.

Later that month, he was sued by a British caver who had helped rescue 12 boys trapped in Thailand after Musk called him a “pedo guy” and a “child rapist” after his proposal to use his miniature submarine to extract the boys was rejected.