Boeing is undeterred by all the buzz around SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk, which launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into history last week.
“They’re adding energy to the space market and we like the attention that that’s generating,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” “I think it’s good for the country.”
The successful test flight of the new SpaceX rocket made it the most powerful in operation, capable of lifting a payload nearly three times that of the next largest rockets from United Launch Alliance – a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – and Arianespace. While Falcon Heavy may crush its current competition, Boeing is the primary contractor for a new rocket built for NASA: Space Launch System (SLS).
“We are building the first rocket to Mars, and, as I told you, it’s about 36 stories tall,” Muilenburg said. “It’s first test flight is in 2019.”
Development for both Falcon Heavy and SLS began about seven years ago. But, while Falcon Heavy roared to life on Feb. 7 at Kennedy Space Center, the first flight for SLS slipped to 2020, according to NASA Administrator Robert Lighfoot on Monday. Lightfoot called SLS one of the “critical backbone elements” to NASA’s effort to return humans to the Moon and “for moving farther in deep space,” including human missions to Mars.
“I firmly believe that the first person that gets to Mars is going to get there on a Boeing rocket,” Muilenburg said.
A jubilant Musk said after Falcon Heavy’s launch that he wants “a new space race,” as he thinks the success will “encourage other companies and countries” to be ambitious in the same way as SpaceX.
Musk’s company released plans in September to develop its BFR program (Big Falcon Rocket) as the basis to send cargo, and eventually people, to Mars starting in 2022. Yet SpaceX could go back to the Moon with just Falcon Heavy.
“It can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. Don’t even need gravity assist or anything,” Musk said.
While the test flight version of SLS will lift around the same amount of mass compared to Falcon Heavy, that’s where the similarities end. NASA has spent over $10 billion developing the SLS rocket thus far; Musk says SpaceX spent over $500 million in internal funds to build Falcon Heavy. The SLS version for crewed flight will lift 105 metric tons; Falcon Heavy tops out at around 64 metric tons. Each SLS rocket is expendable; Falcon Heavy comes in reusable and expendable configurations. A SLS launch comes with a price tag of over $1 billion; Falcon Heavy rockets go for $150 million at most.
This is also not the first time Muilenburg’s touted that Boeing will power a crewed maiden voyage to the red planet: he made the same declaration in December.
“Do it,” Musk tweeted.