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Corner Office

At SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell’s job is to solve the problems that others can’t

Kai Ryssdal Dec 12, 2018
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As SpaceX's chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell leads the company day to day.
NASA HQ PHOTO/Flickr

A week ago, SpaceX launched its 20th Falcon rocket, sending a supply capsule — also built by SpaceX — up to the International Space Station where it will be docked for the next several weeks. It’s an operational capstone for the company that’s come to lead the commercial space industry and is one of the world’s highest valuated companies. Gwynne Shotwell is the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX; while Elon Musk is the CEO and founder, Shotwell is the person leading the company day to day. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal made the trip to SpaceX headquarters, located not far from Los Angeles International Airport, where Shotwell gave him a tour of the main factory. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Gwynne Shotwell: OK, so this is the first time you’ve been in the factory, right?

Kai Ryssdal: No, I was here with Elon about six or seven years ago, maybe eight years ago.

Shotwell: OK. All right. Well, it looks a little different.

Ryssdal: Well, it does. I mean, just looking right up here, there’s a flown capsule right there.

Shotwell: That is the first —

Ryssdal: I was here before any of that happened.

Shotwell: OK. So this one is special then. This is the first capsule that we flew, orbited and re-entered, the first time a private company was ever able to do that. And so we have it hanging here on our ceiling. It’s like a corporate teddy bear, it’s our thing we look to.

Ryssdal: It’s a little bit like the Air and Space Museum, actually.

Shotwell: A little bit.

Ryssdal: Let’s slide down this way a little bit. And I want to get back to your day, right, because, great, you do exercise and that’s all good. But when you walk in here, you’re running a rocket factory. You’re running a space program. How do you do what you do is the question, right? What is your job?

Shotwell: Well, my job basically is to solve the problems that people that work for me can’t resolve themselves, right? If there were no issues, then you don’t need me, which would be fantastic for the company, actually. But really, my job and Elon’s job as well is to guide the folks in their path every day as well as resolve issues for them that they can’t resolve themselves.

Ryssdal: I really, really, really don’t want to talk about your boss because there’s a lot of talk about Elon Musk.

Shotwell: Yeah, I love my boss, though.

Ryssdal: Well, I know you do, and I’ll give you the opportunity to say that. But he goes on “60 Minutes” last week and makes a whole lot of news for whatever. Every time he opens his mouth, he makes news. Here’s my question: Does he make your job easier or harder?

Shotwell: I think his job is to make my job harder, candidly, right?

Ryssdal: So you’re like furrowing your brow and thinking about this.

Shotwell: Yeah. I’ve actually never really thought about that. I’ve never been asked that question specifically. I mean he’s here to push the company in directions that are difficult, of course. Like if you don’t, if you don’t hold the standard very high, you’re aiming low and you won’t achieve the things that we’ve achieved. So his job is to keep raising the bar or raising the standard and making it harder.

To listen the extended interview, subscribe to the Corner Office podcast on Apple Podcasts.

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