This story is adapted from Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger.
Before she would become one of two principal leaders at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell worked with Hans Koenigsmann at a much smaller company in Southern California named Microcosm.
In contrast to the laconic German engineer, Shotwell is bold and effervescent. She has plenty of brains but none of the nerdiness or awkwardness that characterizes some engineers. A former cheerleader in high school with a hearty laugh, she could talk to anyone. And often, she and Koenigsmann would go out to 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 called the eatery Chef Hans-y. After they ate, she dropped Koenigsmann off at 1310 East Grand a few blocks away. The large building was home to perhaps only half a dozen employees at the time. As they pulled up, Koenigsmann invited Shotwell inside to see his new digs.
“Just come in and meet Elon,” he said.
The impromptu meeting might have lasted 10 minutes, but during that time Shotwell came away impressed by Musk’s knowledge of the aerospace business. He seemed no dabbler, flush with internet cash and bored after a big Silicon Valley score. Rather, he had diagnosed the industry’s problems and identified a solution. Shotwell nodded along as Musk talked about his plans to bring down the cost of launch by building his own rocket engine and keeping development of other key components in-house. For Shotwell, who had worked for more than a decade in aerospace and knew well its lethargic pace, this made sense.
“He was compelling—scary, but compelling,” Shotwell said. At some 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 well and left, hoping the new company would make it. Then she went back to her own busy life.
Later that afternoon Musk decided that he should, indeed, hire someone full-time. He created a vice president of sales position and encouraged Shotwell to apply. The prospect of a new job had not been on Shotwell’s radar. After three years at Microcosm, using her mix of engineering and sales skills, she had grown the firm’s space systems business by a factor of 10. She enjoyed her job. Moreover, by the summer of 2002, Shotwell felt like she needed some stability in her life. Unlike most of the recent college graduates Musk was hiring to work day and night, Shotwell had a lot to balance in her personal life. Almost 40 years old, she was in the midst of a divorce, with two young children to care for and a new condo to renovate. It would be good for the aerospace industry to have someone like Musk come in and shake things up. But did she want to disrupt her life as well?
“It was a huge risk, and I almost decided not to go,” she said. “I think I probably annoyed the hell out of Elon because it took me so long.”
In the end, opportunity called, and she answered. Her 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 the way it is, or do I want it to go in the direction Elon wants to take it?” So she embraced both the challenge and the risk Musk offered her. After weeks of dithering about whether to stay or go, Shotwell finally called Musk while driving on a freeway through Los Angeles, toward Pasadena.
“Look, I’ve been 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 just made arguably the company’s most important hire.