Opinion: SpaceX's Shotwell's Press Performance a Comedy of Errors

SpaceX

AmericaSpace Note: Post updated with video from the SpaceX press event.

CAPE CANAVERAL – The presidents of the world’s various major aerospace firms either are well-versed in what to say, or have a knowledgeable public relations spokesperson providing guidance. Given some of the comments from and demeanor of SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell during a press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 6 – it would appear that SpaceX is still working on its public affairs apparatus.

Key facts and figures that most experienced aerospace heads would know in their sleep – escaped Ms. Shotwell. Worst, when stating some of the numbers and timing of the launch sequence – it appeared as if Shotwell was reading them off her company’s press kit. She follows this performance by mentioning the kit and stating:

“…by the way, I have all this in the press kit, you’ll have all these details – you don’t have to remember any of this – I certainly wouldn’t.”

Actually, as the head of SpaceX she should remember it, or at least have a working knowledge of it when appearing in front of members of the media. But this misstep was just one of many that would follow.

SpaceX is working under the mistaken notion that it can still keep details from the public – now that it is happily accepting public funds. One jaw-dropping statement from Shotwell highlights the thinking that has caused the firm to become such a hot-button topic. When Associated Press correspondent Marcia Dunn asked, “Is there a cost attached to the upcoming flight?” Ms. Shotwell responded with the a flippant and haughty:

“A cost?” “Sure!” “Are you asking am I going to share that?” Uhhh, yeah, we don’t really talk about cost at SpaceX.”

Excuse me? You don’t talk about cost at SpaceX? Many view the company as being the president’s favored son. Especially since the only pad Obama visited last April was SpaceX’s, summarily snubbing both NASA’s workforce and its history in the process. Given the status that Obama has given to SpaceX above all others, including NASA itself; Shotwell should be required to talk about cost. How much of the taxpayer dollars that are being invested in the firm? How much is being invested in the Falcon 9? Dragon spacecraft? Shotwell’s salary? If SpaceX wants to be viewed as a better alternative to space-business-as-usual, then it needs to drop this elitist attitude. SpaceX can’t have it both ways, it can’t be a private company – one that is all too happy with taking public funds – and expect to not be required to provide details. Strangely, she lauds NASA for the funds it has provided and acknowledges the cost to taxpayers.

Shotwell stated that she ‘bristles’ at the idea of cutting corners, however the concept of cutting corners reared its head in one of her own statements. When pressed about what would happen of SpaceX lost control of the Dragon, her comments displayed a surreal lack of understanding about the severe nature of the situation described. Irene Klotz asked what would happen if SpaceX lost control of the Dragon spacecraft. Shotwell stated that:

“Umm, I, I believe what would happen is if we lose control of Dragon when it’s still attached – we would tumble and break up.”

When Klotz, with Reuters and Aviation Week pressed Ms. Shotwell about what would happen if control of Dragon was lost on orbit the head of this up-and-coming aerospace company stated:

“Hopefully, the Dragon will break up, if we don’t have a controlled reentry.”

Leaving many a seasoned journalist to finish the unspoken concern in this statement – “Hopefully it doesn’t land on someone’s house.”

The Apollo Program is mentioned in the press kit provided by SpaceX. Shotwell, ever quotable, went on to state that she dislikes being compared to other programs, one mentioned was Apollo. Given the highly-successful nature of Apollo and what is was to the country and historically, Shotwell could have ingratiated herself with a lot of the OldSpace community by accepting this element of the question – as a compliment. She did not do this however, again displaying an arrogant, almost elitist attitude.

A NASA employee stated that SpaceX would not allow the photos that were taken recently by NASA to be released, despite the high-quality of these images. The photo opportunity scheduled for today was also cancelled. Time and again, SpaceX has worked to shun the media and to keep members of the media, and therein the public, out.

Ms. Shotwell’s performance at this press conference only highlighted complaints that have long-simmered regarding the commercial space company. SpaceX has drawn fire for not providing information in a timely manner, for being secretive and for having a less-than-open attitude. Shotwell, in her comments and demeanor, gave ammunition to detractors when she could have easily defused them. All around, numerous chances to shine in the public relations arena were available to this SpaceX executive…and were missed.

3 comments to Opinion: SpaceX’s Shotwell’s Press Performance a Comedy of Errors

  • Daron

    SpaceX is a joke!

  • K. Hyer

    Phil McAlister Acting Director, Commercial Space Flight Development NASA HQ Washington “We’re not going to know until the end of the program if we’ve been ultimately successful in achieving the capability of delivering these services to ISS.”

    This man could run as speaker of the house.

    I won’t know whether or not the money I spent on this “capability” was successful until the end of the COTS program? Awarding ISS cargo contracts to a unproven capability? (COTS AND ISS Cargo are separate contracts) ISS cargo contract is a big gamble. But they don’t talk about that at SpaceX.

    Commercial Space innovation sounds more like a campy B movie; technology hasn’t changed much, just the contract management model.