SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, made history this May as the world’s first privately held company to send a cargo payload on a spacecraft directly to the International Space Station.
Ever asked yourself what Isabella and Ferdinand would do?
Meet Gwynne Shotwell. She asks every day.
Just minutes after presiding over a facilities meeting during which men’s urinals had been the subject du jour, Rolling Hills resident and Space Exploration Technologies president, Gwynne Shotwell, discovered she’d made the 2013 Forbes “Women to Watch” list, positioning her amongst the most powerful women in the world. “It was a total shock,” says a very modest and amused Shotwell at an early morning meeting near SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
In addition to overseeing daily operations, Gwynne manages all customer and strategic relations to support the growth of SpaceX, a multi-billion-dollar, privately funded commercial space travel company founded by Paypal entrepreneur Elon Musk. With degrees in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics from Northwestern University, Gwynne has been working, advising, writing and lecturing in the aerospace industry for more than 20 years.
When she first met Elon while dropping off a friend who worked at SpaceX, Gwynne told him frankly that he needed a new business developer. Later that afternoon, she was invited to interview for the position.
Needless to say, Gwynne makes a good first impression. Her lasting impression is not bad either; since joining the company in 2002, she is responsible for generating nearly $5 billion in revenue through the Falcon vehicle family launches and for growing the company from a handful of employees to 2000 strong.
“It’s Elon’s vision, it’s his company,” describes Gwynne, “but we also have 2,000 extraordinary employees.” She anchors Elon’s entrepreneurial spirit and is the link between idea and implementation, stressing the essential role of her 2,000-member team.
Engineers work on a Dragon spacecraft at headquarters, a 550,000-square-foot facility in Hawthorne.
With Gwynne Shotwell at the helm, the SpaceX team has developed the Falcon launch vehicle series, the Dragon spacecraft, and as of early October, successfully docked and made delivery to the International Space Station as part of a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. This recent October mission was the first “operation- al” journey of its kind, proving that a private com-pany is capable of a technical feat that only the four big players—the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency—had been able to achieve prior.
SpaceX is on fire. Literally.
“Launch is the scariest part. You’re dealing with an explosion, 1 million pounds of thrust,” Gwynne explains in an animated manner, just days before the Dragon spacecraft successfully launched to orbit from Cape Canaveral. Despite the nerves and anticipation, Gwynne says launch is her favorite part.
“There’s such a high energy, there’s a buzz. Once Dragon is in orbit, we can alter things via computer,” but until that point, “there are just so many elements to a successful launch.”
Describing a previously successful research and design mission to the International Space Station in May, Gwynne says, “I’m not going to say we got lucky, because that would negate the hard work of 2,000 people, but …” She ends her sentence with a grin.
As SpaceX’s special brand of “luck” would have it, they did it again. The October mission delivered 1,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station, with chocolate vanilla swirl ice cream being one of the most anticipated items on board. “Looks like we’ve tamed the Dragon,” quipped International Space station commander Sunita Williams as the capsule docked.
The Dragon crew perform evaluation tests in January 2012.
So what’s next for the pioneers of commercial space travel?
“Space is the new door,” says Gwynne emphatically. “Do you think Isabella and Ferdinand thought this would be it?” she asks incredulously, referencing the Spanish sponsors of Christopher Columbus’ expedition across the Atlantic as she gestures toward the American ground below. No! As she told Forbes, “Only fools would criticize investment in science and exploration.”
In recent years, Congress has been supportive of commercial space technology development and entrepreneurship, as “they see the benefits of quality of service and best value that comes from this,” Gwynne says in a Skepchick interview. But truth be told, the United States is behind in the space race.
We made it to the moon in the ‘60s, but now we pay the Russians to take our astronauts to space—while we own the most expensive launch vehicles in the world. Despite the bleak picture, SpaceX is redefining the possibilities of the new frontier.
Gwynne believes we could be launching our own astronauts to orbit in three years time, a point she is particularly excited about. “We lost that ability to get to the moon, but we can get it back. We can launch a new car in two years, it just takes a little longer to launch a rocket.”
SpaceX is not only pioneering new geographical frontiers but, of course, technological frontiers as well. “The path laid out for aerospace on the ‘how to’ is wrong. We’re not altering the fundamental principles of space flight here,” Gwynne stresses, but SpaceX has to be innovative.
A main focus of the company’s technology is reusable design. The Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles have both been designed to eventually be reusable, a feature that will drastically reduce the cost of space flight and increase accessibility. Notably, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is co-founder and head of design for Tesla motors, a company that aims to prove “electric cars can be awesome.”
He is also chairman of Solar City, a leading residential solar power provider in the United States. There appears to be a theme here. It’s redefining the way we live in our world and the possibility of living on another.
Would Gwynne go to space? Maybe. “If there are 10 spots and the president is one of them, that won’t look good. SpaceX employees will go.” You’d think it would be a perk of the presidential position, but again, this leader puts her team first. If Gwynne’s excitement and enthusiasm levels over a 7 a.m. cup of coffee are any kind of baseline indicator, an afternoon at SpaceX headquarters must be one hell of an adrenaline rush. Space, and the enthusiasm surrounding its exploration, is infectious.
It’s Gwynne’s gleeful yet calculated discussion of her industry that fuels and propels the company forward. Her enthusiasm is palpable, her manner inviting, and her intellect unmissable. “Elon points, I drive.”
What’s it like, being a woman at the wheel? Gwynne prefers to point out success before sex. “Be successful first, be something else second.”
A humorous quote from Gwynne’s Facebook page, by women’s movement leader Bella Abzug, speaks to Gwynne’s take on women at work: “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”
Touché. Gwynne diffuses my line of questioning with a dose of cleverly apportioned humor.
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and chief designer.
As Elon told Bloomberg Businessweek, his favorite book is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. “It taught me that the tough thing is figuring out what questions to ask, but once you do that, the rest is easy. Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment.”
Collective enlightenment is all well and good, but ultimately, who takes the credit for the triumphs of a private company? National claims to intellectual property and success mark collective memory, craft identities and crucially affect funding and politics.
Are SpaceX’s successes American, the product of a South African innovator, or are they feats of humanity? Walking on the moon may have been one giant step for mankind, but the Americans got the credit.
Gwynne stresses the interdependent nature of the relationship between NASA and SpaceX, lauding the partnership and the integral roles both parties play. Technically however, in terms of aggregate number of launches, international clients comprise SpaceX’s biggest market.
It’s a complicated question, but she maintains these are steps forward for humanity. This is “something the world can root for. I can’t wait to get a ticket to space,” says a current employee.
“Yes, Elon is from South Africa and is the genius mastermind and innovator behind it all, but it’s truly up to all of the scientists and engineers working at the company,” says another SpaceX associate. “Interplanetary travel is a nerd’s dream, whether they are from America or not, and SpaceX is full of amazing nerds trying to make Elon’s dream into a reality.”
Gwynne shares the same out-of-this-world, can-do attitude. When asked what young people interested in aerospace need to do today to land a job at SpaceX tomorrow, she stresses the importance of hands-on engineering projects and the need to design, build and fly. “Demand projects,” she says. Just “demonstrate that you’re excellent.”
I mean, come on, greater collective enlightenment and excellence? It’s not like it’s rocket science.