Ms. Shotwell is credited by colleagues and competitors as being most responsible for tempering Mr. Musk’s impulses while helping turn his space dreams into reality. The 54-year-old’s influence and longevity in the Musk inner circle—along with the ability to prosper in a pressure-cooker job—offer a contrast to the revolving door of lieutenants exiting Tesla Inc., TSLA -13.90% where Mr. Musk also is chief executive.
Some space experts cite Ms. Shotwell’s calm and collegial manner for helping closely held SpaceX avoid the management and legal turmoil roiling Tesla, as Mr. Musk faces a federal civil suit seeking to bar him from serving as an officer of that or any other U.S. public company.
“She has managed to not only survive but thrive in a tough role that other people haven’t managed as well,” said Lori Garver, a former senior official at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who dealt frequently with Ms. Shotwell. Her personality and leadership, Ms. Garver said, “provide the secret sauce for the company, which has helped keep it successful.”
A sign of Ms. Shotwell’s effectiveness was her use of her NASA connections in 2013 to help SpaceX snare an exclusive, long-term lease for launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, according to people familiar with the matter, contracting documents and agency emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Pad 39A helped launch U.S. astronauts to the moon and now is integral to SpaceX’s operations.
“I very seldom dealt with Elon because Gwynne ran the company,” said Charles Bolden, NASA administrator during the Obama administration. She was much more “personable and more inclined to talk about family” in addition to business, he said. Ms. Shotwell is the mother of two children, and her husband works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.