Sat. Sep 24th, 2022
A smiling woman sits on the podium.
enlarge Gwynne Shotwell speaks at the 2017 Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City.

Taylor Hill/Film Magic

SpaceX had its most successful year in 2020. Amid the pandemic, the company set a record for total launches: 26. All of them met their targets. The Crew Dragon spacecraft put humans – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – into orbit for the first time. And then it did that again, with the Crew-1 mission in November. SpaceX has also made demonstrable progress with its next-generation Starship launch system.

Oh, and the company also became the largest satellite operator in the world with its Starlink internet service.

For SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell, 2020 was indeed a turning point. “It was a year of highlights,” she said in an interview. “There are probably 10 things I would look back on this year and say they were extraordinary.”

However, the safe launch of astronauts was probably the biggest. “Bob and Doug get safely into orbit and back, especially at that time, it was such an awful time in the world, that was amazing,” she said.

Shotwell came to work at SpaceX a few months after Elon Musk founded the company in May 2002. Initially, her job was to sell launches on the small Falcon 1 rocket that the company was developing. But over the years, Shotwell has earned Musk’s trust — and he hers — and seen her responsibilities grow. This year’s crew missions were the result of a nearly 15-year relationship SpaceX had with NASA to launch cargo first and then astronauts to the International Space Station. Shotwell negotiated that first contract, signed in 2006, and has been working closely with NASA ever since. Attending the Crew-1 launch was a special moment for her.

Sell ​​proven missiles

Shotwell has also been busy working with commercial satellite customers and increasingly familiarizing them with launching previously flown rockets. The vast majority of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets now use previously flown first stages.

Unless a customer somehow has a strong argument, the decision about which booster to use is left to SpaceX. “You buy a launch service and we’ll provide you with the best vehicle we can in the time frame it takes you to fly,” she said. “And we’ve put most of the control in our hands.”

In reality, Shotwell said, convincing customers to fly proven missiles wasn’t particularly difficult. It was easier to sell customers about the technology than it was about the first Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. This is because SpaceX has achieved what it said it would do with rockets: develop and fly cheap, reliable launchers.

“It was easier to sell ‘proven flight’ to customers than it was to sell Falcons,” she said. “Obviously people are going to trust organizations and people to do what they say they’re going to do, when you show that kind of history. So we said we’d get into orbit with Falcon 1, and we did. We We said we’ We came into orbit with Falcon 9, and we did. We said we’d go to Station, and we did. So the sales pitch became a lot less difficult.”


Shotwell has also started selling the as-yet unproven Starship launch system for commercial launches. In March 2020, the company released an initial “payload user guide” for the large rocket and discussions are underway. However, Shotwell reiterated that the company is essentially selling customers a launch opportunity, not a specific vehicle.

“We’ve signed deals where we can choose whether it’s a Falcon or a Starship,” she said. “We want to provide launch services, and we want to do it in the most cost-effective way for us and our customers, and in the most reliable way for us and our customers. So we really want that in our hands. And we know that we have work with the insurance community, just like we did with Falcon 9, just like we did with Falcon 9 reuse. So there’s still work to be done, but hopefully people trust that we’re going to do what we intend to do .”

If there are technical problems with Starship, and it’s late, Shotwell said the company can fall back on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. But she said SpaceX has already eliminated much of the risk with its Starship testing program. Shotwell noted that the flight of the SN8 Starship prototype in December allayed many concerns about the vehicle’s flight profile during a landing.

“With that, we certainly took that program quite a bit of risk,” she said of the flight. “You always have concerns and scheduling issues, but the amount of flight hardware in Boca with that team is really impressive.” Asked if she thinks Starship will reach Earth orbit in 2021, Shotwell said, “I vote yes.”

Starship is the culmination of much of what SpaceX has worked towards in its 18 years of existence. Shotwell took the plunge and joined the then-unknown company because, like Musk, she believed there were faster, more efficient ways to do space travel. With its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 programs, the company has been through some growing pains, but now with the Starship program, it can draw on those lessons and act quickly. SpaceX is building Starship vehicles at a rate of more than one per month and will aim to accelerate that pace in 2021. The scale of the project and the speed at which the company builds these massive rockets is unprecedented in the space industry.

“We’re not doing it to embarrass people, but we’re certainly happy to provide examples of how industries and businesses can do better,” Shotwell said. “We’re not here to be negative — we’re here to provide objective evidence and some truths that you can do better in this industry, and this industry deserves to get better.”

By akfire1

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