This story is adapted from Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger.
Before she would become one of two principal leaders at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell worked with Hans Koenigsmann at a much smaller company in Southern California named Microcosm.
In contrast to the laconic German engineer, Shotwell is bold and effervescent. She has plenty of brains but none of the nerdiness or awkwardness that characterizes some engineers. A former cheerleader in high school with a hearty laugh, she could talk to anyone. And, often, she and Koenigsmann would go out to lunch.
After Koenigsmann took a new job at SpaceX in May 2002, Shotwell celebrated by taking him to lunch at their favorite spot in El Segundo, a Belgian restaurant named Chef Hannes. Sometimes, to tease her friend, Shotwell called the eatery Chef Hans-y. After they ate, she dropped Koenigsmann off at 1310 East Grand a few blocks away. The large building was home to perhaps only half a dozen employees at the time. As they pulled up, Koenigsmann invited Shotwell inside to see his new digs.
“Just come in and meet Elon,” he said.
The impromptu meeting might have lasted 10 minutes, but during that time Shotwell came away impressed by Musk’s knowledge of the aerospace business. He seemed no dabbler, flush with internet cash and bored after a big Silicon Valley score. Rather, he had diagnosed the industry’s problems and identified a solution. Shotwell nodded along as Musk talked about his plans to bring down the cost of launch by building his own rocket engine and keeping development of other key components in-house. For Shotwell, who had worked for more than a decade in aerospace and knew well its lethargic pace, this made sense.
“He was compelling—scary, but compelling,” Shotwell said. At some point during their brief discussion, she mentioned that the company should probably hire someone to sell the small, single-engine Falcon 1 rocket full-time. At the end of the visit, Shotwell wished Koenigsmann well and left, hoping the new company would make it. Then she went back to her own busy life.
Later that afternoon Musk decided that he should, indeed, hire someone full-time. He created a vice president of sales position and encouraged Shotwell to apply. The prospect of a new job had not been on Shotwell’s radar. After three years at Microcosm, using her mix of engineering and sales skills, she had grown the firm’s space systems business by a factor of 10. She enjoyed her job. Moreover, by the summer of 2002, Shotwell felt like she needed some stability in her life. Unlike most of the recent college graduates Musk was hiring to work day and night, Shotwell had a lot to balance in her personal life. Almost 40 years old, she was in the midst of a divorce, with two young children to care for and a new condo to renovate. It would be good for the aerospace industry to have someone like Musk come in and shake things up. But did she want to disrupt her life as well?
“It was a huge risk, and I almost decided not to go,” she said. “I think I probably annoyed the hell out of Elon because it took me so long.”
In the end, opportunity called, and she answered. Her final decision came down to a simple calculation: “Look, I’m in this business,” Shotwell thought at the time. “And do I want this business to continue the way it is, or do I want it to go in the direction Elon wants to take it?” So she embraced both the challenge and the risk Musk offered her. After weeks of dithering about whether to stay or go, Shotwell finally called Musk while driving on a freeway through Los Angeles, toward Pasadena.
“Look, I’ve been a fucking idiot, and I’m going to take the job,” she said.
Musk might not have realized it at the time, but he had just made arguably the company’s most important hire.
Musk brought funding, engineering skill, leadership, and more to SpaceX. But to succeed in the global launch industry would require more than this. Aerospace companies in the United States, and institutional rocket businesses in Russia, Europe, and elsewhere, jealously guard their launch business. NASA, the US Air Force, and other government agencies were generally comfortable with the existing state of things. And the large US aerospace contractors had well-oiled congressional lobbies to ensure this order prevailed. To take all of this on, Musk needed a partner who possessed his brashness but also understood this political terrain and had the sophistication to navigate it. This was where Shotwell would come in.
She and Musk are both different and the same. He is blunt and, at times, awkward—she all smiles and smooth talk. But beneath their differing veneers they are sympatico, sharing the same fearless philosophy of charging forward headlong, seeking to mold the industry in their image.
Accepting Musk’s job offer liberated Shotwell from the constraints of a more traditional aerospace company. During her first day at work, she set about formulating a strategy to sell the Falcon 1 rocket to both the US government as well as small satellite customers. Seated in the cubicle farm at 1310 East Grand, in El Segundo, Shotwell wrote a plan of action for sales. Musk took one look at it and told her that he did not care about plans. Just get on with the job.
“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is refreshing. I don’t have to write up a damn plan,’” Shotwell recalled. Here was her first real taste of Musk’s management style. Don’t talk about doing things, just do things. She proceeded to generate a list of prior contacts in the industry and people she thought might be interested in the small launch vehicle. Shotwell might not have had a rocket ready to launch, but she did have fortuitous timing. When Shotwell joined SpaceX in September 2002, the military had cause to be interested in what she was selling.
One year earlier, an aerospace engineer named Steven Walker was at his desk in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Department of Defense Headquarters. The 9/11 terrorist attacks left a strong impression on Walker and the rest of the US armed forces, as they scrambled to respond to a threat that originated in faraway Afghanistan. “One of the frustrations the defense establishment had is that, unless we had a base close to where the action was happening, it could take us a long time to intervene,” Walker said. At the same time Shotwell joined SpaceX, Walker moved to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to head a program created to address the military’s need for rapid response.
Ironically, Walker’s post-9/11 program would be named Falcon, for Force Application and Launch from Continental United States. (Walker was not aware of the Falcon 1 rocket when this name was chosen.) The Falcon program had two separate goals. The first involved development of a hypersonic weapon, and the second a low-cost launcher that could deliver at least 1,000 pounds to orbit for $5 million per launch. In addition to giving the military a new capability, this would stimulate the stagnant US aerospace industry. Darpa began to solicit bids from industry for the small rocket program in May 2003 and eventually received 24 responses. From these, Walker awarded nine grants worth about half a million dollars each for design studies. While some awards went to established companies such as Lockheed Martin, the majority were given to smaller firms like SpaceX. Ultimately, SpaceX and AirLaunch, which aimed to drop its rocket from a C-17 aircraft, emerged as finalists. AirLaunch never reached space.
For years after Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space in 1983, she felt uncomfortable about serving as a role model for girls. Later in life, she explained in an interview how she came to peace with this position. “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday,” Ride said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Shotwell had a similar experience with engineering. In 1969 her father gathered 5-year-old Gwynne and her siblings around the TV to watch the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. She has fuzzy memories of the experience, recalling it as rather boring and not as “good looking” as the children's shows she was familiar with. The rest of the Apollo program passed her by unheeded, never really sparking an interest in science. Growing up in Libertyville, a smallish town north of Chicago near the border with Wisconsin, Shotwell’s life revolved around extracurricular activities as well as work in the classroom. She captained the cheerleader squad, played varsity basketball, and enjoyed widespread popularity. But that would begin to change on a Saturday during her freshman or sophomore year. Some instinct prompted her mom to take Shotwell to a Society of Women Engineers event at the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, Shotwell soaked up career advice from a panel that included an electrical engineer, a chemical engineer, and a mechanical engineer.
“I loved the mechanical engineer,” Shotwell said. “She was well spoken. She was incredibly poised. She had a beautiful suit; you’ve probably heard that, it’s not a joke. I just thought she was great. Oh, and she was running her own business.” The woman, in fact, owned a construction firm that focused on using green building materials, not exactly something in vogue during the late 1970s. “I fell in love with her, and I said ‘I’ll be her,’” Shotwell said. “And that’s why I became an engineer.”
As a senior in high school, Shotwell did not look far and wide for the best engineering schools. Of all the choices a straight-A student might have had, she applied only to nearby Northwestern University. She wanted a school that was strong in many nontechnical areas, not just engineering. When the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent a letter encouraging her to apply, the name on the brochure turned her off. No way, she thought, would she attend a school named Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shotwell had no desire to spend the next four years of her life considered a geek. “I wanted to make sure I was not a nerd,” she said. “That mattered to me at the time. Now I celebrate my nerdiness; I celebrate my children’s focus on engineering. My husband’s an engineer. My ex-husband is an engineer. His parents are both engineers. We revel in engineering now, but the world was a very different place.”
College proved a difficult transition. Her freshman-year grades were marginal due to an active social life, and she struggled with engineering classes. A breakthrough came during a hard-core analysis class. Though she paid attention to the professor’s lectures, the dense material seemed incomprehensible. But as Shotwell spent a weekend really trying to understand the fundamentals for the final exam, it suddenly began to make sense. When her professor handed back exams to the class, she had made the highest grade. It must have surprised the teacher, because when he returned Shotwell’s test, he gave her a quizzical look. No doubt he wondered if she had somehow cheated her way to an A.
With her newfound confidence and improving grades, Shotwell began applying for a multitude of engineering jobs. On January 28, 1986, she had an interview with IBM. She had to walk through downtown Evanston to reach an on-campus interview, and paused to watch the space shuttle Challenger launching in a storefront television. With Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space onboard, the mission was big news across the country. As Shotwell looked on with increasing horror, the vehicle broke apart 73 seconds into the flight while still in clear view of ground-based cameras. She soldiered on to the interview, not quite able to get past what she had just seen. “I was pretty shook up about it, actually,” she said. “I didn’t get an offer from IBM, so I must have really sucked eggs on the interview.”
Her highest and best offer came from Chrysler, which hired a few dozen new graduates that year and paid them an annual salary of about $40,000, seeking to groom them for management. One week, Shotwell would find herself in a school for auto mechanics in downtown Detroit. “So me and the dudes were rebuilding engines, doing valve jobs, rebuilding transmissions,” she said. “And I loved that.” The next week she would work alongside company engineers designing new cars. Although she loved the garage work, the automotive engineering proved less than inspiring. A lot of the really difficult—and thus interesting—tasks were farmed out to contractors, often in foreign countries. So in 1988, after completing a graduate degree in applied mathematics, the Midwestern girl decided to move across the country for a career in a field that was still America-led: spaceflight. She took a job as a thermal analyst at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles.
She got her first real taste of space in 1991, with the STS-39 space shuttle mission. The temperature of space changes rapidly when a spaceship goes from full sunlight into total darkness, such as when the shuttle would pass behind the Earth, opposite the sun. For this mission, the Department of Defense, NASA, and the international community flew several experiments on the shuttle, and when the vehicle opened its payload bay doors to space, the “warm” payloads needed to stay warm while the “cool” payloads remained cool. As a thermal analyst, Shotwell ran models on supercomputers of shuttle heating in real time as it orbited Earth, and fed the data to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. This was fun, but after a while Shotwell realized that a company like the Aerospace Corporation, which did mostly analysis, might not be the best fit for her, either.
After a decade as an analyst, she joined Microcosm, focusing mostly on selling services to the government and space firms she had gotten to know at the Aerospace Corporation. During her three years at Microcosm, the company went from worrying about layoffs to expanding its staff. Yet this experience, too, still did not quite quench her thirst for making a difference. Deep inside, Shotwell knew she had more to offer the world. So the idea of selling Elon Musk’s unproven rocket, and working for someone regarded as a demanding boss, did not faze her. “I knew the business by then,” she said. “I would be selling to my old compatriots. Of course I could sell rockets. No question at all.”
From the book LIFTOFF: ELON MUSK AND THE DESPERATE EARLY DAYS THAT LAUNCHED SPACEX by Eric Berger. Copyright © 2021 by Eric Berger. To be published on 3/2/2021 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Updated 3-4-21, 8:30 pm EST: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into space. She was the first American woman to fly into space. Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to fly into space.
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