Gwynne Shotwell is Via Satellite’s 2017 Satellite Executive of the Year!
Congratulations are in order for Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, who was recently named as Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year for 2017. Mark Holmes, Editorial Director, Via Satellite and I recently sat down with Gwynne to talk about the monumental year that SpaceX had and what is to come. Gwynne will be presented with the Satellite Executive of the Year Award on March 14 at SATELLITE 2018.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as SpaceX’s greatest accomplishment in 2017?
Shotwell: Pulling off 18 launches and hitting our stride after Flight 29 on Sep. 1 (Amos 6) was key. Recovery from failure is always hard but the worst kind of failure you can have for a launch services provider is when you are on the pad: you lose one of the assets that allows you to launch. So, we got 39A up and running; we got pad 40 operational last year and upgraded our Vandenberg pad in California as well.
Recovery was also an extraordinary accomplishment last year. Frankly, I didn’t think we would do as well as we did. I think I predicted we would refly at least one. But, reflying five last year successfully was a great accomplishment for us, as well as the overall industry. I think it is really going to open peoples’ eyes in terms of a new way of thinking. The market acceptance of flight-proven capability far exceeded what I thought we could achieve this year. I believe half of our flights in 2018 will be on flight-proven vehicles, which is a testament to the engineering and production teams of SpaceX, and our ability to prepare these vehicles for a second flight. It is a pretty significant mindset change in our industry — a revolutionary change. I applaud all our customers for looking at this carefully and agreeing with us, that this is the right way to go.
VIA SATELLITE: SpaceX launched at an incredible pace in 2017: 18 successful missions, more than one per month, and three alone in the month of June. You’ve recently stated that you aim to increase your cadence by 50 percent in 2018. How do you manage a workload at a pace that’s never been managed before?
Shotwell: It is not magic, but it wasn’t easy. We demonstrated, I believe it was in 2014, that we could launch satellites back to back in around 11 days. What we needed to make sure is that we could produce the vehicles at that kind of pace, and keep it up, which is what we did last year. Our launch team worked their butts off, and they will do it again this year. But, the key was we hit our stride on our production side.
What lightens the production burden this year to increase our pace is the use of flight-proven vehicles. We have 26-30 flights in 2018, but around half of those will be flight proven. With the flight proven missions, this cadence requires a production rate of what we have demonstrated already. At least for first stage. We will increase cadence for second stages and fairings.
VIA SATELLITE: How difficult/important was it to get contracts with the U.S. Air Force?
Shotwell: The national security space market has dropped as well. United Launch Alliance (ULA) has gotten orders from this community, up to 12 a year in the past but, going forward, it looks as though that market will be five or six per year.
We are winning, though. We won two GPS missions last year which was a huge accomplishment for the company. That was a big turning point for SpaceX, to be acknowledged as a reliable provider by the U.S. Air Force. That was great for the company and great for the country as well. The GPS missions were reported to be 30-40 percent cheaper from SpaceX than our competitor ULA in that field. That means the government saved up to $60 million each time, which is a lot of money to save. Now is not a time to be inefficient with public dollars, so we are quite proud of winning those deals and decreasing military expenditures for space launch. I am sure our take-up on winning will increase. Hopefully the market will also increase there as well.
VIA SATELLITE: Looking back on the Falcon Heavy launch, how confident were you that it would be successful? Elon seemed to downplay it a little beforehand. Were you more confident? How will this launch be a gamechanger for SpaceX?
Shotwell: I was definitely more confident than Elon reflected in his statements. Our static fire went very well – we aced the predictions of the environments so we were able to lift off more quickly after that test. This opens up new opportunities for us with the USAF, NASA and some commercial missions. Falcon 9 is such a beast that it can take far more of the commercial GTOs to orbit than we originally thought, so the commercial market for heavy is smaller, but still necessary. I am so proud of the SpaceX team – they have demonstrated their technical and reliability chops. It was a really awesome day!
VIA SATELLITE: Aside from the SpaceX company mission, what are your own personal goals as an executive leader? What would you see as your own personal crowning achievement as a leader at SpaceX?
Shotwell: My focus from the operational perspective is to really make sure we are meeting customer needs. The greatest day in my career at SpaceX is when we have not delayed a customers’ launch. Ideally, we will end up waiting for our customers.
Last year, we hit our cadence; we didn’t launch everybody that we wanted to, but we got to the 18 mark — which was our goal — without a failure. This year will be even better. We are not going to have customers waiting and we are going to launch even more. That is my focus; that drives the way I lead internally. I am the chief customer advocate to ensure we are doing what our customers need. That is frankly what our business is about.
Join us at the Satellite Executive of the Year Lunch on March 14 at SATELLITE 2018 as Gwynne Shotwell is presented with this prestigious award, along with remarks from Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).