Teen Skepchick Interviews: Gwynne Shotwell

Teen Skepchick Interviews: Gwynne Shotwell

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.

Gwynne Shotwell is the powerhouse President of SpaceX, (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), a space transport company founded in 2002. She was the seventh employee to be hired, and has remained on to build the company to the size it is today. In fact, this very month, the Falcon 9 will be launching from Cape Canaveral, and docking at the International Space Station. In between test-firing the Falcon 9 last week, and the upcoming excitement, Gwynne took some time to answer questions for Teen Skepchick. (And tell us that she’d love to do some space travel, herself.)

What gets you up in the mornings?

A handmade latte that my husband delivers to me each morning!

What brought you to SpaceX?

I ran into Elon (Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer at SpaceX) when I dropped off a friend from lunch who had just started working at SpaceX. I mentioned to Elon that he should hire a Business Developer, and I guess he agreed. He hired me.

Falcon 9 Static Fire (April 30th, 2012)

What made you stay?

The people and the mission. Working with the super smart and dedicated people at SpaceX is a tremendous gift. I also love my customers. It is a real pleasure working with them.

And who doesn’t want to work on rockets and spaceships?

What was your experience as a woman in engineering when you were starting out?

I try not to notice biases based on sex. And actually I don’t think I was negatively impacted in my education or any of the jobs that I have actually done. I did have a little problem during an interview process–but I didn’t get that job because I was a girl–but they were clearly losers, so it is best that I didn’t work for them. What counts is how effective you are, not what body parts you happen to possess.

How does the current situation in Congress impact SpaceX/private spaceflight in general?

Congress is supportive of commercializing space–they see the benefits of quality of service and best value that comes from this. I don’t know how much time they spend thinking about space tourism.

Space debris: is that an issue SpaceX has to look at?

We need to be good stewards of all our environments. Space is just one of them, and those who participate in the space experience should make sure that they don’t leave behind junk that makes future activities in space difficult.

What kind of role do you see for commercial space travel going forward? Will it be principally suppporting government funded research (moving supplies to and from the International Space Station), tourism, or an opportunity for the private-sector to profitably lead research and exploration? That is, would the private-sector ever consider space viable without government contracts?

The more professionally focused market–meaning exploration and science (via the International Space Station or other destinations, such as private stations being developed by a company called Bigelow Aerospace)–will take the lead in space travel early on. Science and discovery can be carried out by governments or through business enterprise. Tourism will follow. I believe strongly that if there are destinations then there will be a tourism market, but this should not be rushed.

The Dragon capsule

Of all the projects you’ve seen start or want to get started, what excites you the most?

I am extremly jazzed by the thought of flying astronauts in Dragon, I really cannot wait to do this!

Pick an assumption that people make about you or your work that is false, and tell us why.

People assume that because we have found the recipe that allows us to develop reliable products at unheard-of prices that we must be either

  1. Cutting corners
    or
  2. Faking what our costs are and getting subsidized by investors

Clearly 1 is false, or we wouldn’t have gotten our Falcon 9 rocket to orbit successfully twice in a row. This doesn’t mean we won’t have setbacks, but we have demonstrated we can do this job repeatedly. Regarding 2: we have auditied financials just like every other company. They show we have spent the money that we said we have and are not hiding other sources of cash. Innovation is the actual key to our affordability.

Falcon 9 on its first successful launch

How do you respond to those who criticize the amount of resources spent on space travel?

Space travel or space exploration? Only fools would criticize investment in science and exploration.

You can institute one government policy–what do you do?

I would eliminate government policies that prevent competition. We want to see competition in space. It’s almost like in a tournament: when everyone is competing, everyone has to do their best. And the very best performers end up winning. If the U.S. government forces companies to compete, then every company will have to work harder and perform better, and we will see a far more exciting future in space.

If you could edit one part of the way we currently teach science in schools, what and why?

Learning should be fun, and the experience should fit the learner–we spend too much energy trying to fit the learner to the experience. We should be investing in ways to create experiences that help individuals to learn. Some people are hands-on learners and hands-on opportunities should be available to them. Some like to sit quietly and read a book or watch an educational video. That kind of preference should be accommodated. Some like to learn as part of discussions–that option should be okay, too.

Are there steps that we as a society (or SpaceX) can take to ensure that people don’t lose their natural curiosity and desire to figure things out?

As I was suggesting in my last answer, what you cannot do is to force a terribly shy learner to participate in a wild group discussion and expect her to succeed. That will impart fear, and the learning will shut down. It is okay to push people a little bit,–but forcing anything is rarely the right choice when it comes to learning.

You can watch more from SpaceX and Ms. Shotwell, here, in her talk at Northwestern University.


Featured Image via SpaceX

 

Kate is an outspoken atheist, feminist, demisexual, stigma-busting student in Chicago studying psychology and human development. She juggles occasionally, would knit you something warm if she knew you, and reads anything she can get her hands on. She was raised believing alternative medicine worked, and now spends her time making skeptical faces at it. You can find her on Twitter at @donovanable
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