This woman wants to take you to Mars

Woman standing in front of space capsule (© Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell is responsible for the company's day-to-day operations and for managing all customer and strategic relations. (© Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

For Gwynne Shotwell — president of SpaceX, the company that plans to bring people to Mars — the path to becoming one of the most powerful and influential women in business began when she met a woman who defied her expectations of what an engineer could be.

When Shotwell was a teenager growing up in Chicago, her mother surprised her with a trip to a Society of Women Engineers conference. Shotwell was a top student at the time but had no career path in mind … until that day, when a female engineer at the event impressed her.

“I left that event saying, ‘Okay, I’ll be a mechanical engineer,’ because I thought she was cool,” she said in a 2017 interview.

One of only three women from her college class to major in mechanical engineering, Shotwell went to work in the automotive and aerospace industries before joining SpaceX in 2002.

SpaceX — formally Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — is a trail-blazing private company that has built a successful rocket business. The head of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has proposed a new type of rocket that he is confident people will someday use to travel to far-off cities on Earth in under an hour. How about London to Hong Kong in 34 minutes?

“It’s definitely going to happen,” Shotwell said April 11 at a technology conference. “I’m personally invested in this one, because I travel a lot, and I do not love to travel. And I would love to get to see my customers in Riyadh, leave in the morning and be back in time to make dinner.”

Reaching space and attracting female talent

Shotwell has been instrumental to the company’s success. Since she became president and chief operating officer of SpaceX in 2008, the company has grown to more than 5,000 employees and more than $7 billion in sales. Last year SpaceX completed 18 space missions. As many as 30 more are planned for this year. The company plans to send cargo — and later people — to Mars in the 2020s.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 18 lofted NASA’s newest satellite into orbit and safely landed its reusable first stage. The satellite is commonly known as TESS, for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Shotwell is committed to bringing more women into her industry. “There is no question that women are starting to enter engineering programs at a much higher rate,” she said. But she thinks more needs to be done to ensure the industry develops its next generation of talent. She believes doing good work is the best way to advance in a field, regardless of race or gender. She calls on industry veterans to “reach out and help people” through mentorship.

Just as Shotwell was inspired by another woman’s success, she inspires women today. “Seeing Gwynne Shotwell up on that stage, someone who looks and sounds like me, gave me a renewed sense of optimism and drive,” said Jessica Noble, a Washington-based space-law attorney, in April when Shotwell accepted the award for Via Satellites Executive of the Year. “It really drove it home for me that making it in this industry is possible.”

This article was written by freelance writer Wesley Thompson.