Meet Gwynne Shotwell: SpaceX President & COO

Emily Engle
by Emily Engle 2 months ago 4 min read
gwynne-shotwell-spacex-portrait
Image courtesy of NASA.

Born to a brain surgeon and artist, Gwynne Shotwell knew she wanted a hands-on career. As a child, Shotwell was interested in machines, and she speculated that an engineer must “drive trains.” But when her mom bought her a book that explained engines, gears, and differentials, for the first time she was hooked, and discovered the plethora of career options available to people who study engineering

Shotwell was never especially interested in space or the aerospace industry, though she attributes that, at least in part, to a lack of exposure. Shotwell attended Northwestern University and received a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics, which, for her, was the beginning of a long career in aeronautics. She graduated with honors for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

An Unquestioned Work Ethic from the Start

When she began working in Chrysler’s management training program in the United States, she craved work that focused more on engineering. She soon left the industry for The Aerospace Corporation, where she worked in thermal analysis. There, Shotwell researched and wrote papers on everything from spacecraft design to reentry vehicle risks, and she was eventually promoted to chief engineer. Still, she wanted to even further integrate herself into the work, accepting a job at Microcosm, Inc. in 1998. There, she oversaw business development for the rocket-builder. 

But who is Gwynne Shotwell now? You likely recognize her name from reporting on space exploration company, SpaceX. This Northwestern Engineering alumna joined Elon Musk’s company in 2002 when it began, as an executive committee member and the vice president of business development. As its eleventh employee, Shotwell was in a place to contribute significantly to the growth of SpaceX. In 2008, Shotwell attended a conference that coincided with the fourth launch of Falcon 1. From the hotel bathroom, she watched it reach orbit via live stream. That same year, she became SpaceX President and Certified Operations Officer. 

Steering the Direction of an Aerospace Company

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As chief operating officer, Shotwell is responsible for daily operations, strategic relations, and the company’s growth. She is also a member of the SpaceX Board of Directors. Under her leadership, SpaceX has become the first commercial organization to launch, orbit, and retrieve a spacecraft. From an employee at a small startup called SpaceX to an international powerhouse, Shotwell was listed by Forbes as the 55th most powerful woman in the world in 2020, and Time magazine included her among the 100 Most Influential People for the first time.

SpaceX is the first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. They’ve also contracted with NASA to bring astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station, and earlier this year, launched two astronauts to Earth orbit. In her role, Shotwell has worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation office while overseeing day-to-day operations at SpaceX. 

A “People Engineer” Changing the World

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Gwynne Shotwell’s support of company growth and success with Elon Musk and at SpaceX is due in part to her incredible intelligence. Still, she also views herself as a “people engineer” who enjoys working with both customers and coworkers to propel innovation. She’s remained focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics throughout her career, raising money for scholarships, serving on STEM leadership boards, and supporting students in STEM fields on various advisory councils. Shotwell is also married to an engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and adds parent to her list of responsibilities, with both a son and a daughter. 

Known for the articulate way she relays complex information in an understandable way, Gwynne Shotwell now does everything from TEDTalks to company communications. Recently, news outlets in the United States published her email referencing diversity initiatives at SpaceX. She wrote, “We are the world’s leader in Spaceflight. We should absolutely be the world’s leader in creating and maintaining a workplace free from bias and injustice where everyone can do their best work so that we can accelerate our goal of making humanity multi-planetary.” She’s seen the company through Falcon failures, lengthy NASA discussions, global pandemics, and everything in between, showing no signs of stopping. She’s the one responsible for convincing investors to fund Falcon 9, even though it had never before flown.

Shotwell attributes her career to a female speaker and mechanical engineer at the 1979 Society of Women Engineers at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In an interview with Satellite Today, she describes an initial admiration of the speaker’s suit and says she approached her after to comment on it. “I was fascinated with what she had to say. She owned her own company, she was developing construction materials that were environmentally friendly, [and] she also had a play with solar energy,” Shotwell said. “I left the event thinking I could be a mechanical engineer.” 

Indeed, Gwynne Shotwell’s rise to power as an aerospace expert and SpaceX President and COO in a field dominated by men is a remarkable one, made possible through her intelligence, tireless efforts, and personability — Bloomberg even referred to her as the SpaceX secret weapon. At SpaceX, President Gwynne Shotwell has earned a reputation as someone who is savvy, smart, and committed to finding ways to accomplish the goals Elon Musk sets out. 

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