GWYNNE SHOTWELL Mike Blake Reuters

Mike Blake/Reuters

Gwynne Shotwell

Chief Operating Officer, SpaceX

Elon Musk is a household name for good reason. In 2002, two years before he joined Tesla Motors, he launched his underdog rocket company, SpaceX, with $165 million in earnings from the sale of PayPal, a hope of populating Mars, and a prayer to give entrenched titans of the spaceflight industry a run for their money.

Often missing from the picture is Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s 11th employee, chief operating officer, and dream-realizer of its idiosyncratic CEO. For nearly two decades, Shotwell has translated her boss’ visions into efficient and practical programs.

Today, SpaceX is launching a record number of commercial rocket missions as it works to encircle Earth with high-speed Starlink internet satellites and develop a fully reusable and industry-breaking rocket system called Starship. Last year, Morgan Stanley Research pegged the company as possibly being worth up to $120 billion.

"Musk is the engineer trying to make the thing work, and Shotwell is busy trying to figure out how to fund things," Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, a venture-capital firm with investments in SpaceX, tells Business Insider. "She's a powerhouse."

Anderson gives Shotwell much of the credit for breaking through "a cartel of defense contractors" and bringing fresh competition to the industry.

Anderson says Shotwell's competence, credibility, and influence have powered her rise as a transformative yet under-recognized engineer and businesswoman in the industry with thousands of workers under her wings.

“She's all execution," Anderson says, "but she's got big vision as well."