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Gwynne Shotwell
SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, talks about the company’s future financial frontier. (CNBC via YouTube)

SpaceX is taking a commanding role in the rocket business — but Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, expects the satellite business to be more lucrative.

Shotwell sized up SpaceX’s road ahead in a CNBC interview that aired today in connection with the cable network’s latest Disruptor 50 list. For the second year in a row, the space venture founded by billionaire Elon Musk leads the list.

The 18 launches by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets accounted for 20 percent of the world’s orbital liftoffs last year, and Shotwell said she expects the launch tally to rise to between 24 and 28 for this year.

Next year, however, could bring a “slight slowdown” to a level that’s more in line with 2017’s pace, Shotwell said. That’s due to a projected decline in demand for satellite launches.

The satellite launch service market has grown to an estimated $5.5 billion in 2016, according to the latest State of the Satellite Industry Report. But that pales in comparison with the $127.7 billion market for satellite services and the $113.4 billion market for satellite ground services.

That’s why SpaceX is putting its chips down on a plan to provide global broadband access through its own satellite constellation, known as Starlink.

“The market size for launches is dramatically less than telecommunications, so that’s a nice way to go and make additional revenue,” Shotwell said.

SpaceX Redmond office
SpaceX’s Redmond office is the center for its satellite operations. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

Internal financial documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal last year suggest that SpaceX expects its satellite data service to bring in more than $30 billion in annual revenue by 2025.

SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., have been given leading roles in the Starlink development effort. Shotwell and other have been reluctant to say much about the operation for proprietary reasons, but back in 2015, Musk said the Seattle-area operation could eventually employ “maybe a thousand people.”

The company’s website currently lists more 100 open positions in Redmond.

In February, SpaceX launched the first two prototype satellites for the Starlink constellation, and in March, the Federal Communications Commission gave its thumbs-up to SpaceX’s plans. Musk has said Starlink’s Version 1 level of service could be available by 2020, but today Shotwell suggested that the technical and financial details have yet to be fully worked out.

She said SpaceX’s experience with the Dragon cargo capsule, and the crew-capable version of the Dragon that’s currently being tested, will come in handy.

“It’s very complementary to the work that we’re doing right now,” Shotwell said. “Dragon is a very sophisticated ‘satellite,’ and we have our own launch capability, so … assuming we get the physics right, as well as the business right, I think we’ll be able to emplace a constellation that could be quite successful.”

Musk’s other ventures are complementary as well. In response to a question, Shotwell acknowledged that Starlink could connect with Tesla’s electric cars, presumably for over-the-air software updates as well as for in-car entertainment.

“We’re not joined, but we do share technologies and capabilities wherever we can,” she said. “In fact, I think the Boring Company could be the way we house people on Mars. We’ll have to dig tunnels for folks.”

Sending settlers to Mars is the long-term goal for SpaceX, for Musk and for Shotwell as well. Toward that end, the company’s development efforts are increasingly shifting toward the super-sized BFR spacecraft, which Shotwell has euphemistically called the “Big Falcon Rocket.”

SpaceX’s aspirational goal is to start flight-testing components of the BFR next year, and start flying people to Mars in 2024.

The company is in the midst of a $500 million Series I investment offering, in part to fund BFR development. Shotwell estimated SpaceX’s current valuation at nearly $28 billion. That makes SpaceX one of the world’s most valuable privately held companies, but Shotwell said it won’t be going public anytime soon.

“We can’t go public until we’re flying regularly to Mars,” she said.

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