PARIS — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell’s tour of Washington the week of March 16 – a luncheon speech, participation in the Satellite 2015 conference and testimony to a U.S. congressional panel – found her occasionally doing the work of the circus shovel brigade.
When you work for a guy who shoots from the hip as often as SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk, it’s an unavoidable part of the job.
Musk spent part of 2014 and early 2015 making extraordinary allegations that competitor United Launch Alliance, its shareholders Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Air Force and anyone else involved in certifying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket for government missions, were all in cahoots to keep SpaceX out of the game and feather their future employment and retirement nests.
Musk went so far as to issue a near-libelous public accusation against a specific individual, formerly with the Air Force and now with a SpaceX competitor, who he said slow-rolled Falcon 9 certification to get his private-sector job.
Since then, Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has dropped its lawsuit challenging the Air Force’s order of a large batch of ULA rockets and focused on the complicated task of certifying its rocket to carry U.S. government missions, a process now expected to be completed by mid-year.
It was time for a peace offering. In her remarks at the Washington venues, Shotwell covered the Air Force with praise, saying its certification team was sparing no effort to complete the process and was working “shoulder to shoulder” with SpaceX.
Was all forgiven then? That’s uncertain, but all was not forgotten, as was clear in a March 17 exchange between Shotwell and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Bishop said he had questions for Musk but would ask them of Shotwell since Musk “decided not to be here and manage his schedule to be with us.” Bishop asked whether SpaceX stood by Musk’s accusations, made in January, that government certification personnel blocked the Falcon 9 certification to curry favor with ULA and its contractors.
Shotwell: Mr. Musk had concerns about a particular procurement officer and his choice of jobs after leaving office. I’m sure if there was any evidence that led to there actually being some issues in that particular choice of job, that this committee would have investigated and cleared it up.
However, I do want to state that the relationship with the Air Force and SpaceX has been extremely good. We’ve been working shoulder to shoulder on the certification process. It was a little slow to get going last year but by the November-December time frame, we were operating at an incredible pace. We just couldn’t get it done by December, but I anticipate certification of the Falcon 9 vehicle upcoming here shortly.
Bishop: So you no longer believe that the people who may have slowed the certification process are doing it simply because they’re looking out for their own retirement and because they’re going against their friends? Does that no longer reflect the attitude of the company or of Mr. Musk?
Shotwell: What I am saying is that this particular concern doesn’t seem to have been borne out. He was just raising a concern.
Bishop: It’s rather a damning sort of concern to be put in public, don’t you think?
Shotwell’s wordless response – a smile and a cock of the head – resembled the reaction of a tennis player who has just been aced: Point taken, now let’s play the next point.
Shotwell also gave details on SpaceX’s new agreement with NASA to extend the current Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) space station cargo-supply contract by adding three launches of the Falcon 9 and SpaceX’s Dragon freighter.
Each of the three missions is valued at about $150 million, she said, saying the original CRS contract – one with SpaceX, the other with Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia – included priced options for follow-ons in advance of a CRS-2 contract competition, now under way. “We competed and we won,” she said.
Orbital ATK has said it too has won CRS contract extension work, but has declined to discuss it.
On the question of whether the Falcon 9 rocket is as “all-American” as advertised, Shotwell said the vehicle uses aluminum supplied by Constellium of the Netherlands, and a non-U.S.-made GPS receiver.
“‘All-American’ is by percentage,” she said. “This vehicle is 99-percent American.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell’s exchange with Rep. Bob Bishop
The exchange starts a 1:10:47