A week after Elon Musk declared his company SpaceX would send 100 humans to Mars by 2024, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg called out the charismatic billionaire with a claim that the first people on the red planet “will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket”—albeit six years later and with a significantly smaller crew.
Thus the aerospace company founded in Seattle a century ago threw its hat into the commercial spacecraft ring—not with an Internet-breaking keynote speech, but a measured call to action. And while Boeing further emboldens a national push for space exploration not seen since the Apollo missions of the 1960s, the question remains whether an old establishment name can compete with the more exciting startup culture of relatively smaller companies like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
“Boeing defined aerospace in many ways,” says Behçet Açikmeşe, associate professor at the University of Washington’s William S. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. (He knows what he’s talking about; he was instrumental in landing the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012.) “But as a larger company, they might not be able to take as many risks.” Risks like SpaceX’s attempted launch of the Falcon 9 rocket back in September, which blew up before takeoff and took a $200 million satellite with it. If Boeing started racking up such explosive public setbacks, “people might be scared to get on a Boeing airplane.” That says nothing of the other competition over capturing the public’s imagination. Which is to say, what Boeing really lacks is star power. Part Nikola Tesla, part Bruce Wayne, and a little messianic, Elon Musk has the kind of outsize personality necessary to fuel public enthusiasm for SpaceX. Boeing’s Muilenburg, on the other hand, might hold as much weight in his own company, but to the average observer he’s, well…who again?
To John Thornquist, director of Washington state’s Office of Aerospace, these perceived PR disadvantages ignore one astronomical fact: “Everyone likes it when Musk speaks. But Boeing has been to the moon.” In other words, aerospace engineers hoping to lead us to the next frontier could do a lot worse than a job with the company that built the Lunar Roving Vehicle.