Enlarge /. Gwynne Shotwell speaks during Forbes Women & # 39; s Summit 2017 in New York City.
Taylor Hill / FilmMagic
SpaceX had its most successful year in 2020. Amid the pandemic, the company set a record for the total number of launches: 26. All achieved their goals. The Crew Dragon starship first flew humans – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – into orbit. And then again with the Crew 1 mission in November. SpaceX also made proven advances in its next-generation Starship launch system.
Oh, and the company also became the largest satellite operator in the world with its Starlink internet service.
Indeed, 2020 was a turning point for SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell. "It was a year full of highlights," she said in an interview. "There are probably 10 things that I would look back on this year and say that they are exceptional."
The safe launch of astronauts, however, was probably the greatest. "Getting Bob and Doug into orbit and back safely, especially during this period, was such a terrible time in the world that it was great," she said.
Shotwell joined SpaceX a few months after Elon Musk founded the company in May 2002. Initially, their job was to sell launches of the small Falcon 1 rocket that the company was developing. But over the years Shotwell has earned Musk's trust – and he deserves hers – and seen her responsibilities grow. This year's crew missions resulted from a nearly 15-year relationship between SpaceX and NASA, bringing cargo first and then astronauts to the International Space Station. Shotwell negotiated this first contract, signed in 2006, and has worked closely with NASA ever since. Taking part in the Crew 1 launch was a special moment for her.
Sale of flight-tested missiles
Shotwell was also busy working with commercial satellite customers and increasingly familiarizing them with launching on previously flown missiles. The vast majority of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets now use previously flown first stages.
Unless a customer has a strong argument in one way or another, the decision on which booster to use is left to SpaceX. "You buy a take-off service and we will give you the best possible vehicle in the time frame you need to fly," she said. "And we put most of the control in our hands."
In truth, Shotwell said, convincing customers to fly flight-proven missiles wasn't particularly difficult. It was easier to sell customers with the technology than it was to sell them with the first Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 missiles. This is because SpaceX did what it promised with rockets – to design and fly inexpensive, reliable launch vehicles.
"It was easier to sell to customers 'flight-tested' than hawks," she said. "Obviously people trust organizations and people to do what they say when you demonstrate that kind of story. So we said we were going to go into orbit with Falcon 1, and we did. We said we & # 39; I would go into orbit on Falcon 9 and we did. We said we would get to the station and we did. So the sales pitch became a lot less difficult. "
Shotwell has also started selling the not-yet-proven Starship launch system for commercial launches. In March 2020, the company released an initial "Payload User Guide" for the large rocket and discussions began. However, Shotwell reiterated that the company is essentially selling its customers a launch ability, and not a specific vehicle.
"We have signed contracts where we can choose whether it's a hawk or a spaceship," she said. "We want to provide launch services, and we want to provide these in the most cost effective way for us and our customers, and in the most reliable way for us and our customers. So we want this to be in our hands. And we know that we're dealing with the insurance community, just like we are with Falcon 9, just like reusing Falcon 9. So much remains to be done, but hopefully people will trust us to do what we intend to do. "
If Starship has technical problems and it's late, the company can fall back on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles, according to Shotwell. But she said SpaceX had already removed much of the risk with its Starship testing program. Shotwell noted that the flight of the prototype SN8 Starship in December raised many concerns about the vehicle's flight profile during a landing.
"We have certainly put this program at risk quite massively," she said of the flight. "They always have concerns and problems with the schedule, but the amount of flight hardware in Boca with this team is really impressive." When asked if she thinks Starship will hit orbit in 2021, Shotwell said, "I agree with yes."
Starship is the culmination of many of the things SpaceX has worked toward over the 18 years of its existence. Shotwell took the plunge and joined the then-unknown company because, like Musk, they believed there were faster, more efficient ways for the aerospace industry to come. The company had some growing problems with the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 programs, but now with the Starship program it can draw on those lessons and move forward quickly. SpaceX is building Starship vehicles at the rate of more than one per month and is expected to accelerate that rate in 2021. The scale of the project and the speed at which the company is building these massive rockets are unprecedented in the space industry.
"We're not doing it to embarrass people, but we're definitely excited to provide examples of how industries and companies can do better," said Shotwell. "We're not here to be negative – we're here to provide some objective evidence and some truths that you can do better in this industry, and this industry deserves to be better."