By Robert Reed / Chicago Tribune
It’s a corporate suit versus a high-tech visionary, and the winner gets a trip to Mars.
Boeing Co. CEO Dennis Muilenburg recently squabbled online with Tesla co-founder and space-travel entrepreneur Elon Musk about whose company will be the first to plant a flag on the Red Planet.
While one of the more interesting Twitter skirmishes this side of Donald Trump, last week’s online exchange is beyond a mere flare-up of high-octane business pique and executive ego.
Defense and aerospace giant Boeing is strongly signaling how crucial deep-space exploration is to its future. Muilenburg is boldly stating his intent to aggressively take on all competitors — including celebrity billionaire rivals like Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is bankrolling a space exploration company.
Boeing has reason to be brash. Aside from being an important supplier to NASA, the Chicago-based company’s current run of upbeat financial and business fortunes makes it a favorite to win the space race to Mars. More than bragging rights, a successful Mars initiative will boost the company’s stature and business prospects and create more jobs.
Last week, Fortune magazine’s tech site tweeted a story link about Muilenburg accompanied by this message, “Boeing CEO: We’re going to beat Elon Musk to Mars.”
Within minutes of its posting, Musk retorted: “Do it.”
Boeing’s Twitter response: “Game on!”
Boeing is building NASA’s Space Launch System, a design that Muilenburg said touted in an October speech as the “largest and most powerful rocket ever built.” A test flight is expected in 2019, according to Boeing.
The rocket project’s ultimate mission is to propel a capsule, designed for deep space and carrying American astronauts, farther than ever. before. One scenario has astronauts rocketing to a lunar space docking system, and then going to Mars before returning to Earth.
The space race is a big reason why Boeing plans to spend nearly $6 billion in research and development next year — an investment buoyed by the company’s healthy aviation and defense sectors.
Demand for commercial jets is expected to be brisk, with orders streaming in for the next few years from U.S. and emerging international carriers. On the defense side, Boeing is predicted to reap an average 3 percent annual growth rate through 2021, according to Morningstar. Boeing’s stock has skyrocketed from $157 per share in mid-December 2016 to its current estimate of $285 per share.
While Boeing is big, beige and bureaucratic, its outer space competitors are individualistic, colorful and entrepreneurial.
Musk has made bold pronouncements about developing commercial flights to Mars. He’s even talked about colonizing the planet.
Recently, Musk broadly outlined a strategy for his SpaceX enterprise with talk of landing spaceships on Mars by 2022. California-based SpaceX was started in 2012 and specializes in cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station; it’s made around 20 missions and has been contracted to do at least six more.
Few would doubt Musk’s reputation as a business dynamo, which is probably why Boeing takes him seriously. These days, however, he’s also dealing with the harsh, down-to-earth realities of running a business.
Musk is striving to boost production of the struggling Tesla Model 3 electric car while coming off a disappointing third quarter loss of $619 million, which was higher than investors anticipated.
Yet Musk isn’t the only super-wealthy maverick looking to give Boeing some heavenly competition.
Amazon’s Bezos is plowing at least $1 billion into rocket company Blue Origin. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic unit has invested $600 million in an effort to get commercial passenger jets to fly in suborbital space by the end of 2018.
Despite such growing interest and exploration, it’s clear that Boeing is the leader of the space pack, especially when it comes to research and results, and likely will be for the foreseeable future.
That formidable combination of aerospace expertise, financial resources, management structure and extensive government contacts is among the reasons its CEO could confidently predict that Boeing will be the first to rocket to Mars. This week, Trump told NASA to get going on plans to send astronauts to that planet.
Muilenburg is on the record about his Boeing rocket project beating Musk to Mars.
Now go ahead. Do it.