Gwynne Shotwell has a difficult job. Her boss, Elon Musk, is known for wild, impossible ambitions on wild, impossible timelines. There’s even a term for his rosy view of what’s achievable and when: “Elon time.” As president and COO of Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX, Shotwell must convey Musk’s crazy expectations to a workforce of thousands, without discouraging them with impossible-to-achieve goals.
In the process of striking that balance, Shotwell has learned to mimic some of Musk’s audacious thinking, she said on stage Wednesday at the TED conference in Vancouver. Shotwell believes SpaceX’s stated goal of taking humans to Mars is just the first step in moving to other solar systems and galaxies. “Mars is fine, but it’s a fixer-upper planet,” she said, echoing a line that Musk has used.
Shotwell projected that SpaceX’s rockets will begin taking people to Mars in the next decade. The mission has been framed as a way to sustain human life in case the Earth is destroyed. “It’s risk reduction for the human species,” she said. Of course, SpaceX also has a well-earned reputation for missing many of Musk’s timing projections.
But Shotwell called that argument “the downer piece.” In a message bound to resonate with the technofuturists in the TED audience, Shotwell described SpaceX’s mission to Mars from a more inspirational perspective. “Fundamentally you go to other places to explore. That’s what makes humans different from animals,” she said, expressing a desire to meet other life forms in other solar systems.
In the meantime, SpaceX has plans for innovations with the potential to transform this planet. The company is working on a satellite project which would deliver high-bandwidth internet service around the globe. Shotwell called it “the most challenging project we have undertaken.” She estimates it will take $10 billion to deploy the thousands of planned satellites, and noted that it isn’t clear how to make a business out of it. Several previous planned satellite-internet services fell to Earth. Still, SpaceX successfully launched two test satellites in February. “We’re marching steadily along, but certainly not claiming victory yet,” she said. “There’s no question it would change the world,” she added.
Beyond internet satellites, Shotwell described SpaceX’s plans to introduce a passenger rocket that would take humans halfway around the world in 30 minutes, at a cost comparable or slightly cheaper than a business class flight. The rockets would take off from launch pads on bodies of water outside of major cities, and Shotwell noted that the longest time spent traveling would be on the boat ride. SpaceX aims to introduce this service within a decade.
The moderator expressed skepticism on such an ambitious timeline. Shotwell did not waver in her response. “That’s my time, not Elon time.”