How I Made It: SpaceX exec Gwynne Shotwell
The gig: Gwynne Shotwell, 49, is president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, the Hawthorne company that builds rockets and space capsules to resupply the International Space Station for NASA. Shotwell is No. 2 at the pioneering company behind founder and chief executive Elon Musk. She is responsible for day-to-day operations and managing customer relationships and company growth. Shotwell, with a sunny demeanor and a blunt way of speaking, is often responsible for updating the media on SpaceX’s missions while they’re happening.
Sky-high: Since its founding in 2002, SpaceX has gone from a start-up with half a dozen employees to a major government contractor with nearly $5 billion in contracts and more than 3,000 people on its payroll. The company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has successfully carried out two cargo resupply missions to astronauts aboard the space station for NASA. It is the only commercial company to do so.
“I knew early on, if these guys [at SpaceX] couldn’t make it in the space industry, nobody will,” Shotwell said. “If we hadn’t achieved success, I was willing to leave the aerospace industry altogether, and go sell real estate or something. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Early days: Shotwell was raised in Libertyville, Ill., a suburb about 40 miles north of Chicago. Her father is a brain surgeon and her mother an artist.
The machine age: The middle child of three daughters, Shotwell was the one who helped her dad cut the grass, put together the basketball net and cut railroad ties for the barrier around the backyard garden. From an early age, she had an interest in machines. In the third grade, she remembers being in the car with her mother and wondering how an engine worked. “So my mom bought me a book on engines,” Shotwell said. “I read it and became really interested in car engines, and gears and differentials.”
In high school, Shotwell was an A-student who played varsity basketball and was on the cheerleading team when her mother told her she should be an engineer. “I was like, ‘What does an engineer do? Drive trains?’” she recalled, laughing. Shotwell and her mom went to a Society of Women Engineers panel at the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, she found out what she wanted for a career.
Entering aerospace: Shotwell earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. Wanting to work in the automotive field, she was enrolled in Chrysler’s management training program. But she soon discovered that the path at the Auburn Hills, Mich., carmaker wasn’t for her.
Luckily, Shotwell ran into a friend who was working at Aerospace Corp., the federally funded research center in El Segundo that oversees the technical side of military space contracts. He invited her to look into an open position at Aerospace.
Shotwell has been in Southern California ever since. She worked for 10 years at Aerospace in thermal analysis, writing dozens of papers on a variety of subjects including conceptual small spacecraft design, infrared signature target modeling, space shuttle integration and reentry vehicle operational risks. “I left Aerospace because I wanted to go build, and put spacecraft together.”
New space: Shotwell departed Aerospace in 1998 to become the director of the space systems division at Microcosm Inc., a low-cost rocket builder in El Segundo. The company, which specializes in space mission engineering for the Air Force, was just the type of small, hands-on organization Shotwell sought.
But in 2002, Shotwell had lunch with a friend who worked for SpaceX. Shotwell had a brief conversation with Musk, and two weeks later she was working for him as the company’s seventh employee. The company’s first rocket, the single-engine Falcon 1, failed three times before it successfully carried a satellite into space in 2008. That same year, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6-billion contract to transport cargo in 12 flights to the space station.
Although aerospace engineers are notoriously known for being introverted, Shotwell calls herself a “people engineer,” meaning she likes working with colleagues and customers.
Her people skills have paid off. In addition to the NASA contract, SpaceX has inked commercial contracts worth more than $4 billion to launch satellites aboard its larger Falcon 9 rocket for various countries and telecommunications companies.
Personal info: Shotwell is married to an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has a son and a daughter.
Passion: Shotwell participates in a variety of programs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM for short — which she sees as crucial for the nation’s future. Under her leadership, the Frank J. Redd student competition, which involves small satellite concepts, has raised more than $350,000 in scholarships in six years.
Advice to young engineers: “Like Elon says, ‘Rarely do things stay the same,’” she said. “If you’re not looking toward the future, or trying to improve the current technology, you’ll be left behind.”
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