The president of SpaceX has revealed what makes the company so successful despite its relatively short life. Gwynne Shotwell, the company's president and COO, spoke at the TED 2018 Conference in Vancouver telling the audience that Space X’s success can be attributed to their way of designing rockets from a "clean sheet of paper."
Unlike other big space exploration companies like Boeing and NASA SpaceX don’t have existing technologies that they need to build off. Instead, the fledgling company can use the latest technology and physics to guide the design.
SpaceX grateful to the history of space engineering
She explains during her talk that SpaceX engineers get to look at the development of the rocket industry and pick "best ideas and leverage them". They aren’t constrained by "legacy components that maybe weren't the most reliable, or were particularly expensive."
"We really were able to let physics drive the design of these systems," Shotwell said. "And we got to make decisions that we wanted to make."
To get her point home, Shotwell describes the process of designing the Falcon Heavy fuel tank. "It's a common dome design, basically it's like two beer cans stuck together," she said. One can or tank is filled with liquid oxygen, and the other with a type of kerosene-based rocket fuel called RP -1. When combined, the oxygen causes the RP-1 to combust, generating enough power to launch the rockets into space.
The design reduced the overall weight of the rocket. “It allowed us to basically take more payload for the same design," Shotwell explained.
Despite Space X’s position of designing without existing infrastructure, Shotwell made a point of acknowledging how much the team has learned from the history of rocket engineering. "We're kind of standing on the shoulders of giants," Shotwell stated.
Point-to-point rocket travel a reality within a decade
Shotwell also described how SpaceX will be ready to offer point to point travel on earth using a rocket designed for outer space within a decade. The flights could reduce long-haul flights to just 30 or 40 minutes.
Shotwell said the ticket price for this ultra-fast travel would be in the thousands of dollars for transoceanic travel. “I’m personally invested in this one,” she said, “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.”
She went to describe how the system would be so efficient that it could operate several flights per day and then keep the costs down as opposed to long-haul flights that can only travel once or less per day.
Shotwell joined SpaceX in 2002 as their seventh employee, coming to the company after working for Microcosm Inc, a low-cost rocket builder in El Segundo. She holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University.