Gwynne Shotwell has seen her share of success as the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, the private aerospace company founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk.
Under the leadership of Musk and Shotwell, the latter of whom joined SpaceX 16 years ago as one of its first employees, SpaceX has grown to become one of the world's most valuable private companies, valued at $27.5 billion as of April. But, despite the success Shotwell has experienced at SpaceX, she says it's actually been the times she's failed that have taught her the most.
"You don't learn anything from success, but you learn a lot from your failures," Shotwell says in an interview with the storytelling platform Makers that was posted online Friday.
Specifically, Shotwell recalls the initial series of rocket launches that SpaceX attempted with its first rocket, the single-engine Falcon 1. The Falcon 1 eventually became the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to orbit the Earth after its first successful launch in September 2008, but SpaceX initially had to struggle through three failed launch attempts over 2½ years before it could celebrate that accomplishment.
SpaceX first attempted to launch a Falcon 1 into orbit in March 2006. "We struggled with getting that vehicle to orbit on that first launch," Shotwell tells Makers. "That failure was pretty dramatic for us. We grew up overnight."
The company "analyzed what went wrong," Shotwell says, (the rocket had a fuel leak that caused a fire) and SpaceX tried to fix the issue and attempt another launch roughly a year later. "We went back to launch a year later, but we still had an issue. And then it took almost another year," Shotwell says in the interview about the second failed attempt in 2007.
SpaceX got "super close" to a successful launch on its third attempt, in August 2008, Shotwell tells Makers. While that launch also failed, Shotwell says SpaceX "knew exactly what was wrong" (the launch team reportedly jumped the gun when triggering the separation of the first two stages of the rocket, sending it off course), which helped the company get the fourth attempt right just a month later.
Failures teach you more than successes, Shotwell says, and after the third failed launch attempt, "we had three good ones under our belt."
When SpaceX finally completed its first successful launch in September 2008, it was a "historic" moment, according to Shotwell. "The room erupted. And there were thousands of people outside of mission control, screaming, crying, jumping up and down," she tells Makers. "It was the only time that a private company had ever done that. Governments had done it before, but not a little company like SpaceX."
The aerospace company had learned something new about how to successfully launch a rocket into orbit with each of the preceding failures, making the eventual success that much sweeter and making it easier for the company and its engineers to prepare for future launches. That same year, Shotwell was named president of SpaceX and the company received a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to transport cargo to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has had more failures over the past decade — including a 2016 rocket explosion that briefly halted the company's launches. But, in 2017, SpaceX had 18 successful rocket launches — its most ever in a single year, and more than any other American company.
Shotwell joined SpaceX as the head of business development in 2002 after being introduced to Musk by a former engineer at Microcosm, the private aerospace company where she'd served as director of the space systems division. Shotwell was impressed by Musk's plan to reduce the cost of launching rockets substantially by re-using the actual rockets (SpaceX successfully landed one of its rockets after reaching orbit for the first time in 2015) multiple times.
Shotwell's job at the time was to sell satellite companies on the idea of using SpaceX rockets to carry their satellites into orbit, she told Bloomberg in a recent interview. "I thought, 'Let's see if I can go sell rockets,'" she said.
"It was a risk, but I figured if I was going to take a shot, this was the shot to take," Shotwell tells Makers.
In an April TED talk, Shotwell said she loves working for Musk, even after 16 years.
"I don't think I'm dumb enough to do something for 16 years that I don't like doing," she says. "He's funny and fundamentally, without him saying anything, he drives you to do your best work. He doesn't have to say a word. You just want to do great work."
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