Gwynne Shotwell speaks during the 2017 Forbes Women's Summit in New York City.
Enlarge / Gwynne Shotwell speaks throughout the 2017 Forbes Girls’s Summit in New York Metropolis.

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

SpaceX loved its most profitable 12 months in 2020. Amid the pandemic, the corporate set a document for whole variety of launches: 26. All met their aims. The Crew Dragon spacecraft flew people—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—into orbit for the primary time. After which it did so once more, with the Crew-1 mission in November. SpaceX additionally made demonstrable progress on its next-generation Starship launch system.

Oh, and the corporate additionally grew to become the biggest satellite tv for pc operator on this planet with its Starlink web service.

For SpaceX’s president and chief working officer, Gwynne Shotwell, 2020 was certainly a watershed 12 months. “It was a 12 months of highlights,” she stated in an interview. “There’s most likely 10 issues that I might look again on this 12 months and say had been extraordinary.”

Safely launching astronauts was most likely the largest one, nevertheless. “Getting Bob and Doug to orbit and again safely, particularly in that timeframe, it was such a horrible time on this planet, that was nice,” she stated.

Shotwell joined SpaceX just a few months after Elon Musk based the corporate in Could 2002. Initially, her job was to promote launches on the small Falcon 1 rocket the corporate was growing. However over time, Shotwell earned Musk’s belief—and he earned hers—and has seen her obligations develop. This 12 months’s crew missions resulted from an almost 15-year relationship SpaceX had with NASA to first launch cargo after which astronauts to the Worldwide Area Station. Shotwell negotiated that first contract, signed in 2006, and has labored intently with NASA since. Attending the Crew-1 launch was a particular second for her.

Promoting flight-proven rockets

Shotwell has additionally been busy working with industrial satellite tv for pc prospects and getting them more and more comfy with launching on beforehand flown rockets. The overwhelming majority of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets now make use of beforehand flown first phases.

Until a buyer has a robust argument somehow, the choice on what booster to make use of is left as much as SpaceX. “You are shopping for a launch service, and we’ll present you the perfect automobile that we will within the timeframe that it is advisable to fly,” she stated. “And we principally put the management for essentially the most half in our palms.”

In reality, Shotwell stated, it has not been notably tough to persuade prospects to fly on flight-proven rockets. It has been simpler to promote prospects on the expertise than it was promoting them on the primary Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. It’s because, with rockets, SpaceX has achieved what it stated it will do—develop and fly low-cost, dependable launchers.

“It was simpler to promote ‘flight confirmed’ to prospects than it was to promote Falcons,” she stated. “Clearly, folks come to belief organizations and folks to do what they are saying they are going to do, if you reveal that type of historical past. So we stated we might get to orbit with Falcon 1, and we did. We stated we might get to orbit with Falcon 9, and we did. We stated we might get to Station, and we did. So the gross sales pitch grew to become a lot more easy.”


Shotwell has additionally begun to promote the yet-unproven Starship launch system for industrial launches. In March 2020, the corporate launched an preliminary “payload person’s information” for the big rocket, and discussions have been ongoing. Nonetheless, Shotwell reiterated that the corporate basically sells prospects a launch functionality, not a selected automobile.

“We’ve got signed offers the place we will choose whether or not it is a Falcon or a Starship,” she stated. “We wish to present launch providers, and we wish to present it in essentially the most cost-effective method for us and our prospects, and essentially the most dependable method for us and our prospects. So we actually need that to be in our palms. And we all know we’ve got work to do with the insurance coverage neighborhood, similar to we did with Falcon 9, similar to we did with Falcon 9 reuse. So there’s nonetheless work to go, however hopefully folks belief that we’re going to do what we intend to do.”

If there are technical issues with Starship, and it is late, Shotwell stated the corporate will have the ability to fall again on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy autos. However she stated SpaceX has already eliminated loads of the danger with its Starship check program. Shotwell famous that the flight of the SN8 Starship prototype in December addressed rather a lot issues in regards to the automobile’s flight profile throughout a touchdown.

“We definitely de-risked that program fairly massively with that,” she stated of the flight. “You all the time have schedule issues and points, however the quantity of flight {hardware} down in Boca with that group is admittedly spectacular.” Requested if she thinks Starship will attain orbit in 2021, Shotwell stated, “I am voting sure.”

Starship is the end result of loads of what SpaceX has been working towards in its 18 years of existence. Shotwell took the plunge and joined the then unknown firm as a result of, like Musk, she believed there have been sooner, extra environment friendly methods to do aerospace. With its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 packages, the corporate endured some rising pains, however now with the Starship program, it will probably draw upon these classes and transfer quick. SpaceX is constructing Starship autos at a fee of better than one per 30 days and can look to speed up that tempo in 2021. The dimensions of the undertaking, and fee at which the corporate is constructing these large rockets, is unprecedented within the area trade.

“We do not do it to embarrass folks, however we definitely are joyful to offer examples on how industries and corporations can do higher,” Shotwell stated. “We’re not right here to be damaging—we’re right here to offer some goal proof and a few truths that you are able to do higher on this trade, and this trade deserves to be higher.”


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