ENGINEERING NEWS

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell Speaks On the Future of Space Transport

Click here to watch a video of Shotwell's talk.


At a Dean’s Seminar Series talk on Nov. 4, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell asked a packed room of McCormick students and faculty if anyone hadn’t heard of SpaceX.

One person raised their hand.

“We build rockets,” she said, but indeed they do much more than that. The eight-year-old space transport company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has developed two space launch vehicles — Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, named after the Millennium Falcon in the Star Wars trilogy — and created a spacecraft called Dragon that could potentially carry space travelers as the era of the space shuttle comes to an end.

But with all of the problems in the world, why should we care about space travel? It’s a question Shotwell answered first, showing videos of the rockets’ launching and separating into orbit.

“Exploration is what makes us human,” she said.

Shotwell was the company’s seventh employee when it was founded in 2002. Now the company boasts 1,200 employees, two launch sites, and a 600,00-square-foot office in Hawthorne, California. The company has designed, fabricated and tested the majority of the components of their space vehicles in-house and recently won a NASA contract to resupply the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle retires this year.

The company has had its share of failures — it took four tries to get Falcon 1 into orbit — but Shotwell says they learn from the failures to continue to make private space transport viable. Shotwell says she’s optimistic that future space travel could include vacations on orbital colonies in vehicles as comfortable as airplanes.

“I think it will be an enormously cool place,” she said.

Shotwell’s journey to space exploration began at McCormick, where she received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 and a master’s degree in 1988. She became a manager, she said, because in addition to her love of numbers and analysis, she loved people and was a good communicator. She encouraged McCormick students who are motivated to consider working at SpaceX, which employs up to 100 interns and routinely hires young engineers. SpaceX isn’t for everyone, she said, but engineers looking for a career should think about their contribution to the greater good.

“Make sure you’re working on projects that you feel will contribute to helping humanity in the future,” she said. “The more you actually do and create, the closer you are to exploring.”