Jenny Hontz (J93) is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Editor’s Note: Gwynne Rowley Shotwell (McC86, GMcC88) will receive an Alumni Merit Award at the Northwestern Alumni Association awards dinner in Chicago on March 3.
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Running a company called SpaceX was hardly Gwynne Rowley Shotwell’s destiny. She never watched Star Trek as a kid and didn’t dream of exploring the final frontier. She does remember the moon landing but, quite frankly, at the time wasn’t all that impressed.
“I remember my dad lining us up in front of this black-and-white TV,” says Shotwell, 48 (she was 5 at the time). “We were in our little jammies, and the picture was very gray and hard to see. It clearly made an impact on me because I remember it. But I also kind of remember thinking, ‘What is this, Dad? This TV’s terrible. Cartoons look way better.’ ”
Today Shotwell (McC86, GMcC88), president of SpaceX, manages day-to-day operations for the cutting-edge company in Hawthorne, Calif., that designs and manufactures rockets and launches satellites into orbit. Founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk in 2002, SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) in December 2010 became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft.
“Gwynne is dynamic,” says Tim Hughes, senior vice president and general counsel at SpaceX. “She’s a rare mix of engineering talent, business acumen and likability. That has allowed her to do extremely amazing things.”
SpaceX is one of only two companies to win a NASA contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. NASA is also providing funding to help the company rejigger its Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts as well as cargo, making it a leading candidate to replace the space shuttle in the next few years.
“It’s a pretty cool company,” Shotwell says in a conference room of the futuristic headquarters, designed with sleek glass walls, modern furniture and rocket-shaped trash cans. It’s also a dream job for this Northwestern alum with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in applied math from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
But Shotwell contends the path to SpaceX was largely a happy accident. The only early clue to an eventual career in rocket building was a childhood interest in cars. “I remember in third grade, I asked my mom, ‘How does an engine work?’ So my mom bought me a book.”
By high school Shotwell still had no idea what she wanted to do. Born in Evanston and raised mainly in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Shotwell was a straight-A student in high school who was far more interested in cheerleading and clothes than in plotting her future.
“How does a cheerleader become an engineer?” asks Shotwell, whose long blond hair, sunny demeanor and self-deprecating humor fit the image of a California surfer girl more than a rocket scientist. “My mom kind of picked it out. She knew it before I did.”
Her mother “dragged” her to a Society of Women Engineers panel at the Illinois Institute of Technology one weekend when Shotwell was a teenager. “I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ ” At the time, Shotwell thought engineers were “nerds, social outcasts, nose pickers.”
But when a glamorous-looking mechanical engineer jumped on stage, Shotwell’s interest was piqued. “I was fascinated with this woman, and I went up and talked to her afterward. She had the best suit on, and so we talked about her suit and her shoes, and I thought, ‘OK, engineers can be cool too. I’ll just be a mechanical engineer.’ I never wavered from that decision.”
Shotwell admits that her choice to attend Northwestern was equally capricious. “It’s actually kind of embarrassing, looking back at it,” she says. “For whatever reason, college was just not a huge focus for me. I wasn’t planning ahead. I just didn’t think about it too much.”
Her father, Wilbur Rowley (GFSM62, 64), had taught at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and her aunt Jacqueline Erickson (WCAS53) was a Northwestern alumna. So when Shotwell looked up the school and saw that the mechanical engineering department was ranked in the top 10 nationally, she thought, “I’ll just go there. I applied to one school and luckily I got in.”
Her undergraduate years at Northwestern were “a very social time for me,” Shotwell says. “I was not the student that I was in high school — by no stretch. I was little sister at a fraternity called Sigma Nu, and then I was crowned the White Rose Queen. I was terrible at labs — horrible, horrible, horrible at labs.”
Things clicked for her academically, though, while studying for the final of a class called 3-D Rigid Body Rotational Dynamics. “I think I probably went into the final exam with a C, and I got the highest grade in the class,” she says. “I remember [the professor] looking at me kind of funny when I went in to pick up my exam, like, ‘You? This? This one’s you, really?’ ”
Shotwell was one of just three women in her class of 36 mechanical engineering undergraduates, but she never felt awkward. “It was a very accommodating environment. I never felt any issues whatsoever about being a woman in Tech.”
The same cannot be said for the work world. One summer she landed a paid internship at a heating, ventilation and air conditioning design company based on her résumé alone. Three days before she was to start the job, her boss called and spoke to her for the first time.
“The guy said, ‘You’re a girl?’ I said, ‘Well, of course, I’m a girl.’ He says, ‘Well, you can’t possibly do this job. There’ll be heavy lifting.’ I said, ‘I lift weights. I’m an athlete,’ and he basically said, ‘You can’t have this job’ and hung up. It was so blatant — what a jerk.”
Shotwell, who describes herself as “super stubborn,” is not one to let challenges stop her. After graduating with honors, she went to work for Chrysler Motors in Detroit. She only had to work four days a week for “super crazy high money,” and Chrysler was paying for her to get a master’s degree at the University of Michigan.
“It was a deal I could not turn down,” she says.
Nevertheless, Shotwell wasn’t happy. Chrysler placed her in its management training program, “which ended up being a mistake because I wanted to be an engineer,” she says, and “all the really interesting engineering problems were subcontracted to engineers overseas.”
Meanwhile, her boyfriend was back in Chicago, as was her mother, who was ailing at the time. So she quit the job and returned to Northwestern on full fellowship to pursue a PhD in applied math. Engineering and applied math professor Alvin Bayliss remembers being “very impressed with Shotwell’s analytical abilities and her drive.”
Shotwell, however, had a hard time going from a nice salary to a $12,000 fellowship, she says. So nine months into the program, after finishing her master’s, she ditched her PhD plans.
Once again, random chance played a role. “I ran into a former McCormick teaching assistant, Tom Hopp [McC82, GMcC84, 87], who was working at Aerospace Corp. in California,” she says. “He said, ‘Gwynne, you should come work at Aerospace,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So I interviewed, and I got the job and moved to California.”
It wasn’t the most direct path to a career in space, but this time, the job stuck. Shotwell did thermal analysis and spent 10 years at the company before getting an itch to “go out and create something.” When a small rocket company, Microcosm, came calling in 1998 with plans to build a launch vehicle, Shotwell jumped at the chance. She wound up heading the space systems division and directing business development.
That might seem like a stretch for an engineer, but Shotwell was “fascinated with economics” — her undergraduate concentration. Sales is also a large component of business development, and with her outgoing personality, Shotwell was a natural. “Cheerleaders make great salespeople,” she says.
Four years into the job, Shotwell had lunch with a co-worker who had just joined the then-startup company SpaceX. They walked by the cubicle of CEO Elon Musk. “I said, ‘Oh, Elon, nice to meet you. You really need a new business developer,’” Shotwell recalls. “It just popped out. I was bad. It was very rude.”
Or just bold enough to capture Musk’s attention. He called her later that day in 2002 and recruited her to be vice president of business development, his seventh employee. She wrestled with the decision. “The history of startup rocket companies isn’t exactly great,” explains Hughes, SpaceX senior vice president and general counsel. “This was not necessarily the safest play.”
Space exploration was in a period of “stagnation,” Shotwell says, but she was intrigued by the company’s plans to cut through the bureaucracy, bring down costs and make the industry less “constipated.”
“We sent men to the moon four decades ago, and now we can’t,” she says. “We, the United States, can’t even send astronauts to low Earth orbit. We’re paying the Russians to do it for us.”
Funding space travel can be a tough sell in recessionary times, but it doesn’t have to be that way, Shotwell says. “There was a lot of risk taken in the Mercury and Apollo eras, and we don’t take those risks anymore. We’ve designed the systems to eliminate risk, which makes it take forever and cost too much money.”
SpaceX completely changed the game. With an entrepreneur rather than a government agency at the helm, SpaceX was able to design, build and launch its Falcon 1 rocket within four years of startup. And SpaceX was able to do it for a fraction of the cost of government-controlled programs, according to Shotwell. The company has been profitable since 2007 and now has almost 1,600 employees.
It got there by challenging conventional wisdom, she adds. Most launchpad air conditioning systems, for instance, cost nearly half a million dollars, but SpaceX execs wondered why it cost so much more to cool an area the size of a conference room than the $75,000 it cost to cool their entire headquarters and manufacturing plant. The company brought the cost down to about $35,000, says Shotwell.
The path to orbit wasn’t always easy. SpaceX weathered three failed launches before its first success in 2006, but “I never doubted that we could do it,” Shotwell says. In fact, after the third launch of Falcon 1 failed, SpaceX quickly identified the problem and relaunched successfully seven weeks later, which is “unheard of,” Hughes says.
“It’s a remarkable testament to her ability to organize and motivate,” he says. “Fundamentally, if you’re at a startup rocket company, you’re an optimist. Gwynne’s attitude, and the attitude of this company, is can-do.”
Promoted to president in 2008, Shotwell is now in charge of sales, marketing, manufacturing, production, launch operations, legal affairs, government affairs and finance. But the best part of the job is watching rockets launch into space. “Nothing can surpass the kind of joy associated with a successful flight,” Shotwell says.
Still, there is a cost to such success. “I used to be really social, but I don’t have time for that anymore,” she says. She spends her scant personal time cooking, reading and watching movies with her husband, Robert, an engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, and her two teenage children. Shotwell also volunteers with cancer patients.
But most of her social energy goes into SpaceX sales, which she believes have been her biggest contribution to the company. “Even before we had ever launched a rocket, Gwynne had sold about 10 launch services,” Hughes notes. “There are very few people who could have done that.”
Shotwell is often called on to be the voice of SpaceX on Capitol Hill, too. The poise she demonstrated testifying before Congress caught the attention of McCormick Dean Julio Ottino, who soon became equally impressed with her “deep technical knowledge” when she later guided him on a tour of SpaceX. Ottino invited her to give the McCormick convocation speech in 2011.
“The decision was an obvious one,” he says. Shotwell embodies the school’s philosophy of whole-brain engineering — a “lucky accident,” he adds, because “we were not consciously trying to produce people like Gwynne 25 years ago.”
In her speech, Shotwell recounted how chance affected her career, and she encouraged students to embrace this randomness of life. “Dealing with random is hard for engineers,” she told the students. “We want to find answers and create certainty.”
But trust her — going along for the ride as you rocket to the top can be a lot more fun.