Chris Anderson: So two months ago, something crazy happened. Can you talk us through this, because this caught so many people's attention?
Gwynne Shotwell: I'll stay quiet for the beginning, and then I'll start talking.
(Video) Voices: Five, four, three, two, one.
Woman: Liftoff. Go Falcon Heavy.
GS: So this was such an important moment for SpaceX. With the Falcon 9 and now the Falcon Heavy, we can launch into orbit any payload that has previously been conceived or is conceived right now. We've got a couple of launches of Falcon Heavy later this year, so this had to go right. It was the first time we flew it, and the star of the show, of course, brother and sister side boosters landing. I was excited.
Thanking my team. By the way, there's maybe a thousand people standing around me right there. And Starman. Starman did not steal the show, though — the boosters did.
CA: There had to be some payload — why not put a Tesla into space?
GS: Exactly. It was perfect.
CA: Gwynne, let's wind the clock back. I mean, how did you end up an engineer and President of SpaceX? Were you supernerdy as a girl?
GS: I don't think I was nerdy, but I was definitely doing the things that the girls weren't doing. I asked my mom, who was an artist, when I was in third grade, how a car worked, so she had no idea so she gave me a book, and I read it, and sure enough, my first job out of my mechanical engineering degree was with Chrysler Motors in the automotive industry. But I actually got into engineering not because of that book but because my mom took me to a Society of Women Engineers event, and I fell in love with the mechanical engineer that spoke. She was doing really critical work, and I loved her suit.
And that's what a 15-year-old girl connects with. And I used to shy away from telling that story, but if that's what caused me to be an engineer — hey, I think we should talk about that.
CA: Sixteen years ago, you became employee number seven at SpaceX, and then over the next years, you somehow built a multi-billion-dollar relationship with NASA, despite the fact that SpaceX's first three launches blew up. I mean, how on earth did you do that?
GS: So actually, selling rockets is all about relationships and making a connection with these customers. When you don't have a rocket to sell, what's really important is selling your team, selling the business savvy of your CEO — that's not really hard to sell these days — and basically, making sure that any technical issue that they have or any concern, you can address right away. So I think it was helpful for me to be an engineer. I think it was helpful to my role of running sales for Elon.
CA: And currently, a big focus of the company is, I guess, kind of a race with Boeing to be the first to provide the service to NASA of actually putting humans into orbit. Safety considerations obviously come to the fore, here. How are you sleeping?
GS: I actually sleep really well. I'm a good sleeper, that's my best thing. But I think the days leading up to our flying crew will probably be a little sleepless. But really, fundamentally, safety comes in the design of the system that you're going to fly people on, and so we've been working for years, actually, almost a decade, on this technology. We're taking the Dragon cargo spaceship and we're upgrading it to be able to carry crew. And as I said, we've been engineering in these safety systems for quite some time.
CA: So isn't it that there's one system that actually allows instant escape if there's a problem.
GS: That's right. It's called the launch escape system.
CA: I think we have that. Let's show that.
GS: We've got a video of a test that we ran in 2015. So this simulated having a really bad day on the pad. Basically, you want the capsule to get out of Dodge. You want it to get away from the rocket that had a bad day right below it. This is if there was an issue on the pad. We also will be doing another demonstration later this year on if we have an issue with the rocket during flight.
CA: And those rockets have another potential function as well, eventually.
GS: Yeah, so the launch escape system for Dragon is pretty unique. It's an integrated launch escape system. It's basically a pusher, so the propellant system and the thrusters are integrated into the capsule, and so if it detects a rocket problem, it pushes the capsule away. Capsule safety systems in the past have been like tractor pullers, and the reason we didn't want to do that is that puller needs to come off before you can safely reenter that capsule, so we wanted to eliminate, in design, that possibility of failure.
CA: I mean, SpaceX has made the regular reusability of rockets seem almost routine, which means you've done something that no national space program, for example, has been able to achieve. How was that possible?
GS: I think there's a couple of things — there's a million things, actually — that have allowed SpaceX to be successful. The first is that we're kind of standing on the shoulders of giants. Right? We got to look at the rocket industry and the developments to date, and we got to pick the best ideas, leverage them. We also didn't have technology that we had to include in our vehicle systems. So we didn't have to design around legacy components that maybe weren't the most reliable or were particularly expensive, so we really were able to let physics drive the design of these systems.
CA: I mean, there are other programs started from scratch. That last phrase you said there, you let physics drive the design, what's an example of that?
GS: There's hundreds of examples, actually, of that, but basically, we got to construct the vehicle design from, really, a clean sheet of paper, and we got to make decisions that we wanted to make. The tank architecture — it's a common dome design. Basically it's like two beer cans stacked together, one full of liquid oxygen, one full of RP, and that basically saved weight. It allowed us to basically take more payload for the same design. One of the other elements of the vehicle that we're flying right now is we do use densified liquid oxygen and densified RP, so it's ultracold, and it allows you to pack more propellent into the vehicle. It is done elsewhere, probably not to the degree that we do it, but it adds a lot of margin to the vehicle, which obviously adds reliability.
CA: Gwynne, you became President of SpaceX 10 years ago, I think. What's it been like to work so closely with Elon Musk?
GS: So I love working for Elon. I've been doing it for 16 years this year, actually. I don't think I'm dumb enough to do something for 16 years that I don't like doing. He's funny and fundamentally without him saying anything he drives you to do your best work. He doesn't have to say a word. You just want to do great work.
CA: You might be the person best placed to answer this question, which has puzzled me, which is to shed light on this strange unit of time called "Elon time." For example, last year, I asked Elon, you know, when Tesla would auto-drive across America, and he said by last December, which is definitely true, if you take Elon time into account. So what's the conversion ratio between Elon time and real time?
GS: You put me in a unique position, Chris. Thanks for that. There's no question that Elon is very aggressive on his timelines, but frankly, that drives us to do things better and faster. I think all the time and all the money in the world does not yield the best solution, and so putting that pressure on the team to move quickly is really important.
CA: It feels like you play kind of a key intermediary role here. I mean, he sets these crazy goals that have their impact, but, in other circumstances, might blow up a team or set impossible expectations. It feels like you've found a way of saying, "Yes, Elon," and then making it happen in a way that is acceptable both to him and to your company, to your employees.
GS: There is two really important realizations for that. First of all, when Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, "Well, that's impossible," or, "There's no way we're going to do that. I don't know how." So you zip it, and you think about it, and you find ways to get that done. And the other thing I realized, and it made my job satisfaction substantially harder. So I always felt like my job was to take these ideas and kind of turn them into company goals, make them achievable, and kind of roll the company over from this steep slope, get it comfortable. And I noticed every time I felt like we were there, we were rolling over, people were getting comfortable, Elon would throw something out there, and all of a sudden, we're not comfortable and we're climbing that steep slope again. But then once I realized that that's his job, and my job is to get the company close to comfortable so he can push again and put us back on that slope, then I started liking my job a lot more, instead of always being frustrated.
CA: So if I estimated that the conversation ratio for Elon time to your time is about 2x, am I a long way out there?
GS: That's not terrible, and you said it, I didn't.
CA: You know, looking ahead, one huge initiative SpaceX is believed to be, rumored to be working on, is a massive network of literally thousands of low earth orbit satellites to provide high-bandwidth, low-cost internet connection to every square foot of planet earth. Is there anything you can tell us about this?
GS: We actually don't chat very much about this particular project, not because we're hiding anything, but this is probably one of the most challenging if not the most challenging project we've undertaken. No one has been successful deploying a huge constellation for internet broadband, or basically for satellite internet, and I don't think physics is the difficulty here. I think we can come up with the right technology solution, but we need to make a business out of it, and it'll cost the company about 10 billion dollars or more to deploy this system. And so we're marching steadily along but we're certainly not claiming victory yet.
CA: I mean, the impact of that, obviously, if that happened to the world, of connectivity everywhere, would be pretty radical, and perhaps mainly for good — I mean, it changes a lot if suddenly everyone can connect cheaply.
GS: Yeah, there's no question it'll change the world.
CA: How much of a worry is it, and how much of a drag on the planning is it, are concerns just about space junk? People worry a lot about this. This would a huge increase in the total number of satellites in orbit. Is that a concern?
GS: So space debris is a concern, there's no question — not because it's so likely to happen, but the consequences of it happening are pretty devastating. You could basically spew a bunch of particles in orbit that could take out that orbit from being useful for decades or longer. So as a matter of fact, we are required to bring down our second stage after every mission so it doesn't end up being a rocket carcass orbiting earth. So you really need to be a good steward of that.
CA: So despite the remarkable success there of that Falcon Heavy rocket, you're actually not focusing on that as your future development plan. You're doubling down to a much bigger rocket called the BFR, which stands for ...
GS: It's the Big Falcon Rocket. CA: The Big Falcon Rocket, that's right.
What's the business logic of doing this when you invested all that in that incredible technology, and now you're just going to something much bigger. Why?
GS: Actually, we've learned some lessons over the duration where we've been developing these launch systems. What we want to do is not introduce a new product before we've been able to convince the customers that this is the product that they should move to, so we're working on the Big Falcon Rocket now, but we're going to continue flying Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies until there is absolute widespread acceptance of BFR. But we are working on it right now, we're just not going to cancel Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and just put in place BFR.
CA: The logic is that BFR is what you need to take humanity to Mars?
GS: That's correct.
CA: But somehow, you've also found other business ideas for this.
GS: Yes. BFR can take the satellites that we're currently taking to orbit to many orbits. It allows for even a new class of satellites to be delivered to orbit. Basically, the width, the diameter of the fairing is eight meters, so you can think about what giant telescopes you can put in that fairing, in that cargo bay, and see really incredible things and discover incredible things in space. But then there are some residual capabilities that we have out of BFR as well.
CA: A residual capability? GS: It's a residual capability.
CA: Is that what you call this? Talk about what the heck this is. Oh wait a sec —
GS: That's Falcon Heavy. That's worth pointing out, by the way. What a beautiful rocket, and that hangar could just fit the Statue of Liberty in it, so you get a sense of size of that Falcon Heavy Rocket.
CA: And the fact that there are 27 engines there. That's part of the design principle that you, rather than just inventing ever bigger rockets, you team them up.
GS: It's exactly this residual capability. We developed the Merlin engine for the Falcon 1 launch vehicle. We could have tossed that engine and built an entirely new engine for the Falcon 9. It would have been called something different, because Falcon 9 is nine Merlin engines, but instead of spending a billion dollars on a brand new engine, we put nine of them together on the back end of Falcon 9. Residual capability: glue three Falcon 9s together and you have the largest operational rocket flying. And so it was expensive to do, but it was a much more efficient path than starting from scratch.
CA: And the BFR is the equivalent of how much bigger than that, in terms of its power?
GS: BFR is about, I believe, two and half times the size of this.
CA: Right, and so that allows you — I mean, I still don't really believe this video that we're about to play here. What on earth is this?
GS: So it currently is on earth, but this is basically space travel for earthlings. I can't wait for this residual capability. Basically, what we're going to do is we're going to fly BFR like an aircraft and do point-to-point travel on earth, so you can take off from New York City or Vancouver and fly halfway across the globe. You'll be on the BFR for roughly half an hour or 40 minutes, and the longest part — yeah, it's so awesome.
The longest part of that flight is actually the boat out and back.
CA: I mean. Gwynne, come on, this is awesome, but it's crazy, right? This is never going to actually happen.
GS: Oh no, it's definitely going to happen. This is definitely going to happen.
So first of all, countries are going to accept this incoming missile —
GS: Chris, so can you imagine us trying to convince a federal range, Air Force bases to take the incomers? Because we're doing it now, regularly, right? We're bringing the first stages back, and we're landing them on federal property on an Air Force base. So I think doing it, I don't know, 10 kilometers out from a city, maybe it's only five kilometers out from a city.
CA: So how many passengers can possibly afford the fortune of flying by space?
GS: So the first BFR is going to have roughly a hundred passengers. And let's talk a little bit about the business. Everyone thinks rockets are really expensive, and to a large degree they are, and how could we possibly compete with airline tickets here? But if you think about it, if I can do this trip in half an hour to an hour, I can do dozens of these a day, right? And yet, a long-haul aircraft can only make one of those flights a day. So even if my rocket was slightly more expensive and the fuel is a little bit more expensive, I can run 10x at least what they're running in a day, and really make the revenue that I need to out of that system.
CA: So you really believe this is going to be deployed at some point in our amazing future. When?
GS: Within a decade, for sure.
CA: And this is Gwynne time or Elon time?
GS: That's Gwynne time. I'm sure Elon will want us to go faster.
CA: OK, that's certainly amazing.
GS: I'm personally invested in this one, because I travel a lot and I do not love to travel, and I would love to get to see my customers in Riyadh, leave in the morning and be back in time to make dinner.
CA: So we're going to test this out. So within 10 years, an economy price ticket, or, like, a couple thousand dollars per person to fly New York to Shanghai.
GS: Yeah, I think it'll be between economy and business, but you do it in an hour.
CA: Yeah, well, OK, that is definitely something.
And meanwhile, the other use of BFR is being developed to go a little bit further than Shanghai. Talk about this. You guys have actually developed quite a detailed, sort of, picture of how humans might fly to Mars, and what that would look like.
GS: Yeah. So we've got a video, this is a cropped video from others we've shown, and then there's a couple of new bits to it. But basically, you're going to lift off from a pad, you've got a booster as well as the BFS, the Big Falcon Spaceship. It's going to take off. The booster is going to drop the spaceship off in orbit, low earth orbit, and then return just like we're returning boosters right now. So it sounds incredible, but we're working on the pieces, and you can see us achieve these pieces. So booster comes back. The new thing here is that we're going to actually land on the pad that we launched from. Currently, we land on a separate pad, or we land out on a boat. Fast, quick connect. You take a cargo ship full of fuel, or a fuel depot, put it on that booster, get that in orbit, do a docking maneuver, refuel the spaceship, and head on to your destination, and this one is Mars.
CA: So, like, a hundred people go to Mars at one time, taking, what, six months? Two months?
GS: It ends up depending on how big the rocket is. I think this first version, and we'll continue to make even bigger BFRs, I think it's a three-month trip. Right now, the average is six to eight, but we're going to try to do it faster.
CA: When do you believe SpaceX will land the first human on Mars?
GS: It's a very similar time frame from the point-to-point. It's the same capability. It will be within a decade — not this decade.
CA: In real time, again, within a decade. Well, that would also be amazing.
Why, though? Seriously, why? I mean, you've got a company where this is the official stated mission. Has everyone actually bought into that mission, given that, I mean, there's a lot of people around who think, come on, you've got so much talent, so much technology capability. There are so many things on earth that need urgent attention. Why would you have this escape trip off to another planet?
GS: So I am glad you asked that, but I think we need to expand our minds a little bit. There are plenty of things to do on earth, but there are lots of companies working on that. I think we're working on one of the most important things we possibly can, and that's to find another place for humans to live and survive and thrive. If something happened on earth, you need humans living somewhere else.
It's the fundamental risk reduction for the human species. And this does not subvert making our planet here better and doing a better job taking care of it, but I think you need multiple paths to survival, and this is one of them. And let's not talk about the downer piece, like, you go to Mars to make sure all earthlings don't die. That's terrible, actually, that's a terrible reason to go do it. Fundamentally, it's another place to explore, and that's what makes humans different from animals, it's our sense of exploration and sense of wonderment and learning something new. And then I also have to say, this is the first step in us moving to other solar systems and potentially other galaxies, and I think this is the only time I ever out-vision Elon, because I want to meet other people in other solar systems. Mars is fine, but it is a fixer-upper planet. There's work to do there to make it habitable.
I want to find people, or whatever they call themselves, in another solar system.
CA: That is a big vision.
Gwynne Shotwell, thank you. You have one of the most amazing jobs on the planet.
GS: Thank you very much. Thanks, Chris.