Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling,
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier hosted Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, for a virtual MasterMinds guest speaker event on March 10 in honor of Women’s History Month.
During the event, Shotwell covered topics including how she helps translate Elon Musk’s vision into reality and how SpaceX adapted their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her remarks, Shotwell underscored the singular purpose of SpaceX: to build a fully and rapidly reusable space transportation system to help humanity travel to other planets. She further elaborated, “We are not in the business of one-way trips. We are looking to build a settlement to Mars.”
To the average person, this might seem like a lofty goal. But to Shotwell, nothing is impossible.
Her confidence in the SpaceX mission was evident throughout the live event. “We set absurdly ambitious goals,” Shotwell said. “Even if we fall short of what we’re trying to do, we will not fall short of building a capability to get people to Mars.”
To reach these goals, Shotwell laid out the fundamental driving principles of SpaceX: rapid innovation, continuous innovation and relentless focus on progress. “If we don’t obsolete our technology, someone else will figure out a way to obsolete our technology,” she explained.
With over 110 successful launches, SpaceX continues to build upon its triumphs. But as Shotwell explained, success doesn’t come without failure. And, as she believes, it shouldn’t.
“Failure is okay,” she said. “If you have not had a test failure, you’re not pushing your hardware far enough and not finding the weak points in your development. You want to see failure in development; you don’t want to see failure in operation.”
Shotwell also discussed how SpaceX’s next rocket system, “Starship,” has the potential to change the way the world operates. Starship represents a fully and rapidly reusable launch system designed to carry cargo and crew to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. If successful, Starship will become the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed.
“Imagine how this could change the military,” Shotwell said. “We could get equipment to any place halfway across the globe, on a half-orbit, in approximately 45 minutes.” Shotwell believes this capability could become a reality in the next five years.
Shotwell explained that the ultimate goal for SpaceX’s use of Starship is to launch people to Mars. “There are Mars nay-sayers and Mars lovers,” Shotwell said. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”
Remarkably, the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed progress at SpaceX.
During the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Shotwell knew she had to keep her employees safe and focused. Not only were many SpaceX workers transitioned to telework to maintain the continuity of the SpaceX mission, but the company even contributed to the safety and wellbeing of essential healthcare workers. “Our composite teams learned they could build face shields for hospitals – about 30,000 were produced in a couple months,” Shotwell said.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, SpaceX successfully launched two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last May. This was the first human spaceflight mission from the United States since the Space Shuttle was retired nearly a decade earlier, and the first time in history a commercial company has flown astronauts to the Space Station. The two astronauts were safely returned back to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft after a two-month stay on the orbiting laboratory.
In closing, Shotwell noted that she wants her story to help motivate other women, and people from all backgrounds and experiences, to join the engineering field.
“Hopefully, my position serves as a light that people recognize that it’s certainly achievable,” said Shotwell. “You can’t have an innovative culture if you don’t question authority and have sameness in perspective. To build complex systems, you need a system of complex voices and experiences.”