Businesswoman, engineer, “rocket scientist,” and mentor are just some of the terms used to describe Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, a commercial space exploration company, and recipient of The Alumnae of Northwestern University’s 2015 Centennial Alumnae Award.

The Alumnae Award recognizes a woman who has brought honor to Northwestern University through outstanding professional contributions in her field and who has attained national recognition. Established in 1976, the Alumnae Award has been presented every year to an outstanding alumna who has had a significant impact in her field of endeavor. Educators, journalists, doctors and artists are included among The Alumnae’s roster of award recipients.

Shotwell received, with honors, her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986 and master’s degree in applied mathematics in 1988, both from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She currently serves on McCormick’s Advisory Council and spoke as McCormick’s convocation speaker in 2011.

Prior to joining SpaceX, Shotwell spent more than 10 years at the Aerospace Corporation. There she held positions in Space Systems Engineering & Technology, as well as Project Management.

She was promoted to the role of Chief Engineer of an MLV-class satellite program (medium launch vehicle), managed a landmark study for the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial space transportation, and completed an extensive analysis of space for NASA’s future investment in space transportation.

She was subsequently recruited to be director of Microcosm’s Space Systems Division where she served on the executive committee and directed corporate business development.   

Shotwell was SpaceX’s seventh employee when she joined as vice president of business development in 2002. In that position she helped develop the Falcon rocket family of vehicles, which resulted in more than 50 space launches, representing over $5 billion in revenue.

Today as president and chief operating officer, Shotwell is responsible for day-to-day operations, managing over $7 billion in contracts, including multiple contracts with NASA to deliver supplies and eventually crew to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX has grown to more than 3,500 employees, three launch sites, a rocket-development facility in Texas, and a 550,000 square foot factory with offices in Hawthorne, California.

The company designs, manufactures and tests the majority of the components of its space vehicles in-house. The company is currently making final modifications to its Dragon spacecraft to ready the spacecraft for human transport, and was recently certified by the United States Air Force to launch national security payloads to space, which represents the largest market for launch services in the world.

In 2014, Shotwell was appointed to the United States Export Import Bank’s Advisory Committee and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Management Advisory Council. She has been awarded the World Technology Award for individual Achievement in Space (2011), has been inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame (2012), and was elected to the honorable grade of Fellow with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  In 2015, she was listed as the 90th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.

SpaceX supports science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs locally near its offices, as well as at national engineering programs and competitions. Through leadership in both corporate and external programs, Shotwell has helped raise more than $1 million for STEM education programs reaching thousands of students nationwide.

“As part of our Centennial celebration, The Alumnae of Northwestern University is extremely proud to present the 2015 Alumnae Award to Gwynne Shotwell,” said Alumnae president Janet Bilandic. “She joins a distinguished group of women from such diverse fields as business, education, journalism, music, medicine, theatre and public service. The Alumnae takes great pride in presenting this year’s award to a woman whose life of achievement has brought honor to Northwestern University.”

Shotwell will receive her award at a ceremony to be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall in the new Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. The public is invited.

The Alumnae of Northwestern University is an all-volunteer organization of women that raises funds for a wide range of projects to benefit the University and shares the University’s academic resources with the community through its Continuing Education program. Founded in 1916, The Alumnae has given more than $7.5 million to the University in the form of grants, fellowships, scholarships, an endowed professorship, as well as providing funds for special university projects and summer internships. For more information, visit the alumnae website at

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