Saturday, November 12, 2022

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell Given Starship and Starbase

I didn't know she wasn't responsible for those two things, considering she is President and COO (Chief Operating Officer).  Perhaps it has been under Musk as CTO (Chief Technology Officer).  

Clearly I was wrong, but The Information reported on Thursday she will "assume oversight" of Starship and Starbase activities as Elon Musk is getting sucked into Twitter more and more.  I had seen what appeared to be rumors about this from feeds I don't know well enough to trust, but now seeing it from Teslarati gives it more believability.  From the reporter who broke the story at The Information:

Enter Gwynne Shotwell, a long-time executive second only to Musk that has often been viewed as “the adult in the room” – a source of stability that bridges the gaps between the CEO’s chaotic and whiplash-inducing style of management. Hired in 2002, it’s entirely possible that SpaceX wouldn’t have survived if her sales acumen hadn’t convinced NASA to take a billion-dollar bet on the company in 2008. But NASA ultimately took that bet right when SpaceX needed it most, and Shotwell went on to help secure another several billion dollars of launch contracts from all possible sectors.

She became President and COO after navigating NASA’s first major SpaceX contract in 2008 and still holds both positions 14 years later. Given that position, The Information’s report is thus somewhat surprising. As Chief Operating Officer, Shotwell was, by definition, already overseeing Starbase operations and the Starship program to some degree. It’s possible that her day-to-day work mainly focused on SpaceX’s Dragon, Falcon, and Starlink programs, but it would be almost impossible for a COO with a reputation as good as hers not to pay close attention to a program that likely represents half (or more) of SpaceX’s R&D spending.

I can't say I understand what's going on with Starship.  Development has clearly slowed down with much more emphasis being given to infrastructure in Starbase, what Musk has called Stage Zero.  Stage Zero represents all the things that must be done so Stage One can light for a mission.  Moving functions from Starship to Stage Zero was done in the name of reducing the recurring costs of Starship and makes total sense for a reusable system.  Part of the slowdown seems to be partly their tendency to test quickly, fail often, and iterate designs quickly.  

It seems, and this is my opinion, that they might have underestimated just how badly things could go wrong when 33 engines generating as much as 16.5 million pounds of thrust undergo RUD - Elon's term for Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.  As happened when a test of booster 7 exploded in July.  Ever since then, we've seen more shielding and protective metal placed around the Orbital Launch Mount, more effort put into water deluge systems, fire suppression and other things that maybe should have been there already. 

...Starship, according to CEO Elon Musk, is the future of all SpaceX programs. If successful, the fully-reusable rocket will be able to launch at least five times the payload of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket for even less than the smaller rocket’s already extraordinary marginal cost of ~$15 million. With ultra-low launch costs and orbital refueling, Starship could become the most high-performance rocket in history and outclass multi-billion-dollar single-use behemoths like Saturn V and SLS for a price tag less than Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy today ($70-100 million).

The Information also reported that SpaceX executive Mark Juncosa, whom they describe as “a brash, unconventional engineer that’s successfully led the Starlink program since Musk fired several over-cautious executives in 2018” has been running the Starship technical operations since last summer.  He will report directly to Gwynne Shotwell.  

I have to say I've never found studying org charts to be interesting, but I've seen Shotwell speak a few times and was impressed.  I've never seen or heard Mark Juncosa, that I know of.  Changes like these aren't surprising to me.  I think it's not at all unusual that a person who sees a business opportunity and starts a company doesn't turn out to be good at running things when the business succeeds and gets big.  An independent, risk-taking, entrepreneurial mindset doesn't necessarily go together with large companies doing everything by published procedures, specifically to keep people from taking too many risks.


  1. Well, hopefully this will allow Musk to be more engineer than executive.

    The FedGov stalling on all sorts of things hasn't helped the development of Starship. Like the ever-holds a while ago on any work pertaining to the lunar Starship, which, being based on the basic Starship, well, I can see that slowing things down.

    Still moving faster than BO.

  2. Beans, you are correct, NASA and FedGov are throwing monkey wrenches in the certification process(es), slowing things down. EPA dragged their feet (along with the FAA) and everybody and his brother (I'm looking at YOU, Bezos) are trying to drag Starship down - because the Big Spacecraft/Rocket guys have been feeding at the Gubmint Contract trough for so long they couldn't survive without it.
    Along comes Elon, and he makes enemies with his successes. Such is the way of today's world.

  3. Perchance is she being setup to take the fall if something goes wrong?

  4. These delays are frustrating for us fans, but will be forgotten - forever - the moment they light the BFR.

    I drove past the facility maybe 10 days ago. The top part of that Starship-booster combo is so high, it is already in space. What a lucky time to be alive.

  5. I really hope they keep being amusing.

  6. They did a 14-engine Static Fire today, for 9 long seconds - Lab Padre's camera got all shook up and others' cameras suffered as well.
    We're all going, "HOLY CARP! This was just 14 engines (according to Musk,,,) - what is 33 gonna look like!?!? The End Of The World, probably!!!!"

    1. Oh, go to the 12:50 mark on the video. Do it quick, though, because the stream only goes back 12 hours: