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A Close Encounter With SpaceX
The Space Issue

SpaceX’s Secret Weapon Is Gwynne Shotwell

She launches spaceships, sells rockets, and deals with Elon Musk.

In early February, Gwynne Shotwell arrived in Saudi Arabia for a bit of last-minute cleanup. SpaceX, the rocket company where Shotwell serves as president and chief operating officer, was days away from its most ambitious launch yet. Its new rocket, Falcon Heavy, would have a larger capacity than any that had lifted off in the U.S. since the Apollo era. And unlike NASA’s Saturn V, which last flew in 1973, the Falcon Heavy would be reusable, capable of bringing its three boosters back from the edge of space and landing them vertically. To make the rocket’s first flight even more memorable, Shotwell’s boss, SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, wanted the experimental payload to include his own sports car.

If all went well, Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster would be propelled toward Mars with a spacesuit-clad dummy behind the wheel and David Bowie’s Life on Mars? playing on the stereo. “Destination is Mars orbit,” Musk tweeted in early December. “Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” News organizations around the world were soon scrambling to cover the launch. “It’s either going to be an exciting success or an exciting failure,” Musk told CBS News on Feb. 5. “One big boom! I’d say tune in.”