A Conversation With Gwynne Shotwell, 2020 Satellite Executive of the Year

Days before sending the Crew-2 mission to the ISS, Gwynne Shotwell jumps on the phone for an interview with Via Satellite while working at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas. She speaks openly about the company’s ambitions for Starlink, her interplanetary dreams, and how she sees her role as an industry leader. At one point during the interview, when an engine fires in the background, she doesn’t hold back her amazement.

Now a two-time winner of Via Satellite’s Executive of the Year award, Shotwell is widely admired in the industry for her dedication and leadership. She first won the award in 2017 for leading SpaceX through industry-changing milestones in rocket reusability. Now, she is being recognized for a year during which SpaceX not only returned human spaceflight to the United States with the Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission, but also maintained the world’s most active launch business, and built Starlink into the world's largest satellite fleet.

While SpaceX’s success almost seems routine, Shotwell maintains a fierce enthusiasm for her work as the company’s president and COO. She continues to focus on the company’s future objectives, the development of the Starship rocket, and the mission to send human beings to other planets. “Now is not the time for SpaceX to be complacent,” she says. “There's no place for complacency when you're doing that kind of work.”

VIA SATELLITE: In your acceptance remarks, you said that SpaceX was able to accomplish extraordinary things in the “weirdo” year that was 2020. How did you adapt your leadership to maintain SpaceX’s pace and success in 2020, while balancing the reality of COVID?

Shotwell: I knew things were going to get bad and I knew the world was going to get turned upside down. I thought the most impact that I could have was to make SpaceX safe enough so that it could feel sort of normal at work.

SpaceX was declared an essential business early on. We still needed to fly Crew Dragon’s second demo. We were staring at flying Bob and Doug just a couple of months from when this whole thing blew up. My focus was to find the best science-based information, and make the best decisions to keep SpaceX open, operating, and feeling as normal as possible. I have an anonymous suggestion box and I learned a lot from what people would send me. We modified our COVID program based on input from employees.

We stumbled at first. Probably everybody did, until you realize what is actually happening and what is the right approach to fix things. Then the focus was — keep moving. Let's make it safe for technicians to build rockets and spaceships, and safe for astronauts and all the folks that go into those missions. It really paid off.

VIA SATELLITE: And then SpaceX was able to execute more launches than ever before in 2020.

Shotwell: I hate to predict how many launches we’re going to do because I'm always wrong. We had a bunch of customers move out. There was a lot of learning that other companies had to do to figure out how to keep their stuff moving. The supply chain was devastated. We worked really hard to keep our machine shops and our suppliers open, and running and operating. If you put aside the pandemic and you look through a very narrow lens at SpaceX — in my 19 years of SpaceX, 2020 was our most extraordinary year.

VIA SATELLITE: When you won Satellite Executive of the Year in 2017, the award was focused on SpaceX’s achievements in rocket reusability. But now, the company is not only the world’s largest launcher, but also the largest constellation operator. You also fly humans to the ISS and you're working on the Starship rocket. How is your time and focus directed between launch, Starlink, and Starship?

Shotwell: The way Elon and I share the load, he focuses on development. He's still very highly engaged in the day-to-day operations, but his focus is on development. He was the lead on Starlink, and I started shifting my focus to Starlink around late spring, early summer of last year. Elon’s focus in that time was moving to Starship, that is his primary focus at SpaceX. It doesn't mean he's not thinking about the company on a day-to-day basis, but his emphasis is to get the Starship program to orbit.

The thing about Starship is, we know how to design rockets and fly rockets. What we have failed to do to date is to design and fly a rocket that is easily producible and fully reusable. It's still hard to produce a Falcon 9. It's a lot of work and it's very expensive. The focus for Starship is to make it highly producible, highly reliable, and 100 percent operationally reusable, both for the first and second stage. That's hard.

VIA SATELLITE: SpaceX came into the industry as a disruptor fighting against the establishment. Now, it is an established industry leader. Can the company be both the establishment and a disruptor?

Shotwell: We never intended to be a disruptor. We really just intended to do the work that Elon laid out for us. I hope we are not considered the establishment, because that sounds very boring. Frankly, when you're in first place for too long, you get complacent. And now is not the time for SpaceX or SpaceX employees to be complacent. We've got the second operational Crew Dragon flight right in front of us, and we will have flown three Crew missions in less than a year. There's no place for complacency when you're doing that kind of work.

One of the reasons why SpaceX is successful is we still have these giant goals in front of us. Every day, you have to think about doing your job better, even if you're not working on one of the new technology programs. That's innovative. Recreating your job, making sure you do better every day, changing processes that are ineffective, or don't result in the most reliable products. I think that drive for change and being better is why we were able to accomplish what we have to date, and that seems counter to being establishment. Establishment sounds like it's settled down. But, we have to keep doing better than what we were doing.


VIA SATELLITE: The commercial crew milestone of SpaceX flying Bob and Doug to the ISS was such an exciting moment in commercial space last year. What did you learn from working with NASA over the years on that program, and bringing the SpaceX and NASA cultures together as collaborators?

Shotwell: NASA has been an extraordinary customer, partner and supplier. The relationship with NASA has been extraordinary, and I hope NASA feels the same way. I hope organizations look at that as an example of how to bring together the best of two sectors to do great work for the country.

What I think is important to take away from that relationship is how it evolved. It was a little contentious at first. We were on very different sides of the spectrum in large system development. And yet, NASA knew that if they had us do things the way that they have always done things, we would never have been able to achieve what we did in the timeframe, and for the dollars involved. Everybody involved in that program kept very open minds. There was never a mandate with the exception of requirements around the ISS that stayed firm. [It was a] journey from a contentious, but open-minded relationship, to what I think is a true partnership between an entrepreneurial, fast-moving company, and an extraordinary organization like NASA that’s done such incredible work over the last 60 years.

VIA SATELLITE: On Starlink, Elon has spoken openly about the challenges of making Starlink a successful business. And the satellite industry has had this holy grail of connecting the unconnected for years, but no one has been able to achieve it yet. How will you make sure that Starlink is successful?

Shotwell: Starlink is the satellite system, the ground system/network, and launch. We understand launch extraordinarily well. Dragon is an extraordinary machine and satellite. We could leverage a lot of that learning and knowledge into the satellite system. We brought on a lot of people from consumer electronics because we wanted Starlink to look more like a piece of consumer electronics than a traditional satellite, and that was incredibly important.

We’re still learning the ground system and the network. But we've got a team that is so dedicated to providing a great experience. Everyone working on Starlink has Starlink. They know when the system has trouble spots, and they're dedicated to fixing it. The network has to get better every day. We’re still stumbling and tripping and finding out new things about this system. But I’m confident that the system will be extraordinary. Then, it’s really left to the market. Is it something that the market wants and purchases? That's the unknown, but given the response to date, it's a pretty great product for those in rural areas.

VIA SATELLITE: When Starlink was first conceived, what was the thought process? We’re great at launch, let’s get into rural broadband?

Shotwell: I think Elon was mulling it over for some time. The total addressable market for launch, with a conservative outlook on commercial human passengers, is probably about $6 billion. But the addressable market for global broadband is $1 trillion. If you want to help fund long term Mars development programs, you want to go into markets and sectors that are much bigger than the one you're in, especially if there's enough connective tissue between that giant market, and what you're doing now. That’s how I recall it, but that’s a good question for Elon.

VIA SATELLITE: How are you approaching the challenge of becoming an ISP and dealing directly with customers?

Shotwell: A lot of that came from Elon’s experience at Tesla. We are definitely focused on consumer first. Not that we're not looking at enterprise markets — we definitely are. But the priority and emphasis are always on the consumer. Starlink is best set up to serve rural villages and the rural population. We can do work in the city, but you can't put enough bandwidth down in a city to cover any sort of percentage of consumers in that cell. Starlink is very complimentary to the large ISP, and especially fiber-based systems. It’s just too expensive to take fiber to every house in rural locations. But, Starlink satellites fly over every part of the globe every day, so it's no more expensive to serve someone in a rural community than it is to serve someone in a city.


VIA SATELLITE: Say in five years, if I'm flying to a space conference, might I be using Starlink connectivity on the airplane?

Shotwell: Sure.

VIA SATELLITE: SpaceX has had FCC filings about putting your antennas on mobile platforms. When will Starlink go mobile?

Shotwell: It’s hard to say because that is a new software challenge for us. Our software team is dedicated to making sure that service is great, or getting to be great, for the customers that we have right now. And there’s cycles in aviation, because you have to get your system on the aircraft. Certainly, five years from now. I would say maybe even half that. Three years, if not sooner.

VIA SATELLITE: What about a potential IPO for Starlink?

Shotwell: I don't have any new information there. Starlink as a business could make sense as a public company. [In regards to] SpaceX proper, I have a harder time seeing that as a public company. The business is too lumpy. We invest so much in R&D — large double digits. The markets don't love that. I don't see SpaceX making sense as a public company right now. But Starlink could make sense.

VIA SATELLITE: As Starlink grows, and expands into enterprise use cases, you'll be in competition with more satellite operators. Do you see any issues with launching competitor satellites? Does SpaceX need to keep launching competitor satellites, or could you just focus on Starlink, NASA, and military launches?

Shotwell: I really see those as two very separate businesses. We want to continue to add value to our customers in the launch sector. Having one market segment in launch doesn't make or break SpaceX. To not leverage what I think is the best launch capability on the planet right now, at our low prices — seems to me like companies are shooting themselves in the foot.

We were intelligent enough to make sure the Falcon 9 rocket serves so many different markets that we weren't dependent on any single sector. We will continue to add great value in space launch for our space launch customers, and I think it's a shame for competitors to look at that any differently than the way I do.

VIA SATELLITE: Big picture, what are your personal hopes when you look toward an interplanetary future with Starship? What kind of future do you hope that SpaceX is enabling?

Shotwell: To me, Starship is SpaceX’s first baby step in human exploration of other planets in the solar system, and moving to other solar systems and other galaxies. I never took an astronomy class, but I am captivated and mesmerized when I look up at the stars, knowing that every one of those is a solar system that could have life like Earth. I yearn to go there and I think Starship is the start with that. It’s a very important step for human existence, and human learning. I look at it as a baby step to getting people out amongst the stars. I always joke about it, but I would love to see what fashion in other solar systems and other galaxies looks like. Did we get it right, or is there better?


VIA SATELLITE: Many women in the industry look up to you as a role model. How are you using your position to encourage other women in the space industry?

Shotwell: I wish I did more, honestly. But hopefully, just doing great work and being part of this great endeavor is inspiring to people. When I do speaking engagements, I try to focus on underrepresented minority outlets, as well as STEM. I really feel like our world will be driven even more by technology, and I want to make sure that the social divide is not exacerbated by the technological understanding divide. Whether you want to be an engineer or a technical person or not, I think it's important that everybody going forward understands the basics. You don't have to code to understand how code is put together.

The best I've been able to do is make sure I'm doing my best work every day and that SpaceX is doing great things. As things slow down at SpaceX — and they never have, but as they do — hopefully I have more time to connect with people more closely, and talk about my story. How I got to where I am, and maybe give some advice to folks that have questions.

VIA SATELLITE: Do you think the space industry is getting better at attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce?

Shotwell: I know it’s a huge focus area at SpaceX and I see the same with colleagues at other companies. I hope we're successful at figuring out what attracts people with different backgrounds and different ways of thinking about things, so that we can attract them to this extraordinary segment of the economy.

VIA SATELLITE: How is SpaceX in particular working on that?

Shotwell: We're doing everything we can think of. Every good idea that we hear, we try to implement. Thomas Edison called himself a great inventor because he tried to do 10,000 things, failed 9,999 times, and had one success. I hope we don't have to do that. But what I think is most important is to figure out what brings different kinds of people to various sectors. Once we understand that, I think that's the best way to resolve this particular challenge. You have to get to the root cause.

VIA SATELLITE: One final question — I read that you have a ranch in Texas that you want to turn into a vineyard. How are your vineyard plans coming along?

Shotwell: We are preparing the vineyard this summer — the infrastructure and irrigation system. We will plant the rootstock either this fall, or next spring. I do need to finalize the grapes that I can grow here. Central Texas is a unique place to grow grapes. It's very hot and quite humid. It doesn't really cool down at night like it does in California and some of the other great wine making countries. We've got challenges, but probably Rhone varietals, maybe some Spanish varietals. I'm really excited about that, that will be my second career. VS

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