Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg highlighted the company’s deep roots in space exploration with a playful jab at up-and-comer Elon Musk.
The aerospace titan doesn’t plan to launch cars into the heavens anytime soon, Muilenburg said at a Politico Space Forum. But “we might pick up the one out there and bring it back,” he said.
It was an apparent dig at the cherry-red Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin astronaut behind the wheel, that Musk launched into space on the first flight of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s powerful Falcon Heavy rocket in early February.
The budding rivalry between the companies is anything but playful, however. Musk’s SpaceX is remaking rocketry by undercutting established rivals such as United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture, with low prices and reusable rocket boosters that tamp down costs. Musk has also outlined an audacious agenda for colonizing Mars, stoking Muilenburg’s competitive fire over who would build the first rocket to reach the planet.
Boeing, which has been building spacecraft since the 1960s, has intensified its investment in advanced space technology under Muilenburg, 54, an engineer by training and the rare Fortune 50 CEO who is a company lifer.
There’s the Phantom Express, an experimental reusable craft that Boeing is developing with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to air launch small satellites. Then there’s the support from Boeing’s venture-capital arm for an Australian maker of nanosatellites. On Wednesday, Boeing announced an in Reaction Engines, a U.K. company developing a hybrid engine capable of flying at Mach 25 for space flight.
Boeing and SpaceX are also working on rival commercial capsules to take humans into orbit under a National Aeronautics and Space Administration program that aims to end the U.S. reliance on Russian rockets to send astronauts to orbit. Both companies are behind schedule as they race to begin flights to the International Space Station before NASA runs out of purchased seats aboard Soyuz craft at the end of 2019.
The CEOs are training their sights on travel to Mars, as well, in what could become the ultimate space race. SpaceX is assembling tools for an enormous rocket nicknamed the BFR. Boeing is a subcontractor for the Space Launch System, a new, government-funded rocket family. And Muilenburg thinks NASA should take the lead and leave industry to focus on commercializing space travel closer to Earth.
With the first of the powerful spacecraft under construction, Muilenburg, sees momentum and technology forming that could make the dream of a human setting foot on Mars a reality within his lifetime. In fact, he said, he’s “hopeful” it will happen within a decade.
The race is on.