This story is adapted from Take off: Elon Musk and the desperate early days that launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger.
Before she does Now one of SpaceX’s two main executives, Gwynne Shotwell worked with Hans Koenigsmann at a much smaller Southern California company called Microcosm.
Unlike the laconic German engineer, Shotwell is bold and effervescent. She’s got a lot of brains but none of the nerd or awkwardness that characterizes some engineers. Former high school cheerleader with a warm laugh she could talk to anyone. And often she and Koenigsmann would go out for lunch.
After Koenigsmann took a new job at SpaceX in May 2002, Shotwell celebrated by taking him to lunch at their favorite spot in El Segundo, a Belgian restaurant named Chef Hannes. Sometimes, to tease her friend, Shotwell would call the restaurant Chef Hans-y. After eating, she dropped Koenigsmann off at 1310 East Grand a few blocks away. The large building housed perhaps only half a dozen employees at the time. As they pulled up, Koenigsmann invited Shotwell inside to see his new digs.
“Come in and meet Elon,” he said.
The impromptu meeting could have lasted 10 minutes, but during this time Shotwell left in awe of Musk’s knowledge of the aerospace industry. He didn’t seem dabbling, full of internet money, and bored after a big score in Silicon Valley. Rather, he had diagnosed the industry’s problems and identified a solution. Shotwell nodded as Musk spoke about his plans to lower the cost of launch by building his own rocket motor and keeping the development of other key components in-house. For Shotwell, who had worked for over a decade in the aerospace industry and knew his lethargic pace well, it made sense.
“He was compelling – scary, but compelling,” Shotwell said. At one point during their brief discussion, she mentioned that the company should probably hire someone to sell the small single-engine Falcon 1 rocket full-time. At the end of the visit, Shotwell wished Koenigsmann good luck. and left, hoping the new company would be successful. Then she returned to her own busy life.
Later that afternoon, Musk decided that he did indeed need to hire someone full time. He created a vice president of sales position and encouraged Shotwell to apply. The prospect of a new job was not on Shotwell’s radar. After three years at Microcosm, using her mix of engineering and sales skills, she had increased the company’s space systems business ten-fold. She loved her job. Also, in the summer of 2002, Shotwell felt like she needed some stability in her life. Unlike most of the recent college graduates Musk hired to work day and night, Shotwell had a lot to balance in his personal life. Almost 40 years old, she was going through a divorce, with two young children to support and a new condo to renovate. It would be nice for the aerospace industry to have someone like Musk come in and shake things up. But did she also want to disrupt his life?
“It was a huge risk, and I almost decided not to go,” she said. “I think I probably pissed off Elon because it took so long.
In the end, the opportunity presented itself and she responded. His final decision came down to a simple calculation: “Look, I’m in this business,” Shotwell thought at the time. “And do I want this business to continue as it is, or do I want it to go in the direction that Elon wants to take?” So she accepted the challenge and the risk that Musk offered her. After weeks of procrastinating over whether to stay or go, Shotwell finally called Musk as he was driving on a freeway through Los Angeles towards Pasadena.
“Look, I was a fucking idiot, and I’m going to take the job,” she said.
Musk might not have realized it at the time, but he had arguably just hired the biggest in the business.