SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell on her career and sending humans to Mars

“Humans should be at least a dual planetary species,” proclaimed Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, during her presentation to kick off Engineers Week on Feb. 22. In her speech, Shotwell  gave an overview of how SpaceX has already changed spaceflight and how the company aims to someday transport humans to Mars.

(Photo Courtesy:

(Photo Courtesy:

The company is currently developing reusable spacecraft to decrease the cost of space travel, which hopefully will lead towards space flight becoming a viable method of human transportation. SpaceX is also currently in a public-private partnership with NASA to build the Dragon Spacecraft, which is one of the successors to the Space Shuttle and also has contracts with governments across the globe.

But Shotwell’s speech was about far more than SpaceX’s technological innovation. Shotwell credited much of SpaceX’s continued success to the talents of her employees as well as an open company culture. Both she and CEO Elon Musk sit at open cubicles so that anyone in the company can talk to them if needed, which leads to a more inclusive and collaborative development process.

Shotwell joined SpaceX as the company’s seventh employee in 2002, and since then SpaceX has grown into a company of over 4,000 people. Its goals are accomplished through the efforts of diverse groups of employees, and thus, there is little room for politics. “The best idea wins for sure … it doesn’t matter how old you are [or] what sex you are,” Shotwell said.

As an example of how anyone in SpaceX could make a difference, Shotwell cited a time when she delayed a launch by nine months because of the concerns of dynamics engineers. Though the engineers’ concerns turned out to be unnecessary, Shotwell refused to take a risk and decided to listen to them. “As a private company, our reputation is all we have,” she stressed.

In addition to talking about SpaceX, Shotwell spoke about her own career path during an open Q&A session after her speech. Her mother was the one to first recommend engineering to her, but she did not know what engineers did. Shotwell decided to pursue engineering after attending a Society of Women Engineers event, where she started a conversation with a fellow engineer because of her suit. “It was that flaky,” she recalled.

Aware of her minority status as a woman in engineering, Shotwell also used the Q&A to engage other women interested in science and technology. The beginning of her Q&A was entirely male-dominated, but as soon as the first woman started to introduce herself, Shotwell exclaimed, “A woman asking a question!” Notably, after her remark, the proportion of females in the audience asking questions grew significantly. Thus, Shotwell’s talk itself demonstrates the impact that even a little encouragement, whether from a stranger at a SWE event or the COO of SpaceX, can have for female voices in engineering (and by extension, the voices of other underrepresented groups).

Even though Shotwell described her speech as a “shameless marketing pitch” to get students interested in SpaceX, her presentation underscored the important idea  that large-scale innovation cannot come from just one person or one point of view. Although she praised Elon Musk’s “clarity of purpose,” after that night it was apparent that space exploration takes the talent of thousands of engineers and international cooperation—not just the vision of a single genius. Her company excels because its leaders consider ideas on the basis of merit and listen to all concerns; SpaceX’s success is therefore a testament to the power of innovation through inclusion.

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