SpaceX’s Shotwell on the need for a reusable Starship rocket for Mars

Published on28 MAR 2024

At some point in the future, we may be able to regularly transport humans to Mars and back.
SpaceX and the engineers behind its two-stage lift launch vehicle, Starship, aim to pioneer this interplanetary route.  

Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, shared her vision for the project, what SpaceX has learned after conducting more than 300 launches, and how its Starlink constellation is connecting Earth’s far-flung communities with high-speed internet. “The connective tissue between what we’re doing on Starlink and the employees at SpaceX is connecting the human race,” she says. Her comments came during a wide-ranging Goldman Sachs Talks session with Susie Scher, chair of the global financing group in Goldman Sachs’ Global Banking & Markets division.

What got you inspired and interested in space?

Actually, I was not a space nerd as a kid. I was a car nerd, so I should probably be working at Tesla, but I kind of fell into this industry. I was looking for a job after my bachelor’s degree, and I ran into one of my former professors, and he was working in Los Angeles at the Aerospace Corporation, so I interviewed and got a job there.

Most people have a basic understanding that satellites are key to so many aspects of our lives. But what’s a deeper understanding of the value of space transport and exploration you feel is missing in the public discourse?

Human nature is a nature of exploration, right? Going beyond what we know, and searching for new things. Space is this unexplored terrain, even after all the decades we’ve put into space exploration. I feel like we aren’t human if we don’t go seek out what there is to learn in space. Robotic exploration is great, but these are precursor missions. We need to get out to other planets and stars. What is our future going to be like? How can we save humanity? I think the answers to those questions are in space.

Let’s spin this forward 10 to 20 years. What will we be seeing with regards to space that we don’t see today? Is it tourism? Is it hypersonic travel?

I think it’s those things and more. I think we will probably land humans on the surface of Mars in roughly a decade. We certainly should launch humans and land them on the surface of the moon in less than that. We’re working on that program with NASA. It’s called Artemis. So certainly I believe there will be a permanent presence on the moon, and we will start building a settlement on Mars. And then I think it will be really important to take what we’ve learned from those insane endeavors and figure out how we go to the next star system.

Progress at the leading edge of anything is a game of inches. How do you think about progress at SpaceX and projects like Starship when dealing with exponentially higher degrees of complexity?

So we talked about how Starship is the vehicle that will take us to the moon and Mars. It will be an evolutionary vehicle. The Falcon 9 is our workhorse rocket today. For those of you who don’t know, rockets are generally single use. Rockets are expensive, and to toss them after one flight seems horrifying. If you had to toss an airplane after one flight, you can imagine we would not be flying around the world. Society would be very different.

The technology leap that we had at SpaceX was to reuse the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. The next evolution is: We will reuse both the first and the second stages, so the entire vehicle stack will go on its mission and then come back to the launchpad. Much like an aircraft, we’d like to land very near the launchpad, if not on it, refill the rocket with the propellants, and relaunch again the same day, within hours.

That evolution is critical to moving humans to other planets. If you don’t reuse the spacecraft, the trip is one way. You want to be able to bring assets back and take more people. If you happen to land on Mars and not love it, and some people might not love living on Mars, then they are going to want to come back. And when you send your rocket on a mission and bring it back, you get to examine it. You can actually improve the design, make it more reliable for people. Since we were founded to take people to other planets, this is a critical feature.

I want to talk about Starlink, which is a global network of more than 5,000 satellites that provide internet access around the world. How big a challenge is it to get more connectivity to more people? And where is SpaceX on that journey? 

We are very early in our journey with Starlink. There are probably 150 rocket customers on this planet, but there’s eight billion potential customers for Starlink. The connective tissue between what we’re doing on Starlink and the employees at SpaceX is connecting the human race — it’s just much more direct.

Our goal is to connect anybody on the planet that wants to be connected. Some of our first customers were Indigenous people and communities. We connected a school in Chile. I was in the Amazon, and we brought a Starlink terminal to a school and to a neighborhood that had never had connectivity. This school had about 80 kids, and I got hugs from all of them. It was one of my favorite days at SpaceX. I still have the photo on my phone.

Your background is in engineering. Now you’re running a company that is worth well over $1 billion. How has the transition from engineer and car geek to space geek to business leader been for you?

I still try to keep my tentacles in engineering, but I don’t get to do much of it. Analyzing proposals is about all the engineering I get to do. But I’m a collaborator and team builder. One of the things I find with engineers is that it’s the interface between them where failures and issues really manifest themselves. And so I feel like I’m a people engineer.

But running a company of engineers, you must have tremendous credibility given that you are an expert.

It’s helpful with them, but it’s incredibly helpful with customers, especially when you’re launching a new technology. Customers have lots of technical questions, and if you’re like, “Well I don’t know, let me go find the answer,” you kind of build doubt in the minds of customers. But being able to respond immediately to their questions or their concerns is helpful to close the deal. I think that’s probably my greatest contribution to the company.

What’s it like to work at SpaceX? It’s known for its young workforce powered by many recent graduates. What are the main attributes you and the team look for when you’re hiring?

The most important characteristic to be a successful employee at SpaceX is you have to have raw innate intelligence. You don’t have to necessarily be skilled in an area because smart people will learn. And there’s a lot of people that already have skills at SpaceX that they can learn from as well. So raw intelligence and motivation are both incredibly important. We really want self-starters. We want every employee to act like a CEO of the company and find issues and go solve them, even if it’s not within their swim lane. So that’s two. Number three is: If you’ve had success somewhere else, you will likely have success at SpaceX. So that’s something we ask during the interviews, to tell us about a project you were really successful with.  

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