Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg foresees busy commercial ‘ecosystem’ in Earth orbit


Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg speaks at Northwestern University, with a model of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket standing in front of him. (Boeing via Facebook)

(This article first appeared on May 2, 2018)

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg predicts that the number of space destinations will grow from one — the International Space Station — to 10 or 12 over the next couple of decades, creating an “economically viable marketplace” in Earth orbit.

And he sees Boeing being in the thick of it.

Tonight Muilenburg sketched out a vision of space commerce and exploration that extended from low Earth orbit to Mars and beyond. The occasion was the 34th Annual Patterson Transportation Lecture, delivered at the Northwestern University Transportation Center near Boeing’s headquarters in Chicago.

Muilenburg repeated his controversial pledge that NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, which has Boeing as one of its lead contractors, will be the first rocket to send humans to Mars. (SpaceX and its fans might beg to differ on that point.)

But it was his vision for a commercial transportation system in low Earth orbit that showed how many of Boeing’s interests — ranging from airplane and satellite manufacturing to its work on the Phantom Express space plane and CST-100 Starliner space taxi — come together on the final frontier.

Muilenburg said the future “space ecosystem” in low Earth orbit will make room for space hotels, in-space manufacturing facilities and other orbital outposts.

“Of course, that will require a transportation system to allow us to get back and forth for those destinations,” he said.

On that front, Boeing can draw on its century of experience in aviation, as well as its increased interest in new technologies such as autonomous flight, hypersonic travel, and electric propulsion.

“We see an integrated transportation system that will step from today’s air travel, to higher-speed travel, to low-Earth-orbit space travel, and that this will become a commonplace event within the next decade or two,” Muilenburg said.

Boeing’s Starliner, which is currently being developed primarily to carry NASA astronauts back and forth to the space station, could serve as a key piece of space transport infrastructure.

Muilenburg said the Starliner was being prepared for a pad abort test later this year, and would move “smartly” from there to an uncrewed orbital test flight, to be followed by its first crewed flight to the space station. NASA’s current schedule calls for those demonstration flights to take place by the end of this year.

“This will be the first private U.S. vehicle to fly to low Earth orbit,” Muilenburg declared. (SpaceX, which is upgrading its existing Dragon capsule to serve as a space taxi, might beg to differ on that point as well.)

Muilenburg also gave a shout-out to the Boeing-built X-37B space plane, part of an Air Force program that has set endurance records for orbital spaceflight. “While I can’t talk about everything that this vehicle is capable of, we’re using it as a test bed to develop space autonomous vehicle capabilities,” he said.

The Phantom Express, which is due to start flying in the early 2020s, is designed to bring quick-turnaround, low-cost rocket reusability to the next level.

Muilenburg acknowledged that SpaceX’s drive to make its rockets more reusable and less expensive is transforming the launch industry — and putting some healthy pressure on Boeing in the process.

“We love to compete,” he said. “I have no problem with that. And I think some of the new entrants to the space business have made my company better, and have just further sharpened our resolve.”

Muilenburg made the Space Launch System the centerpiece of his vision, literally as well as figuratively: A scale model of the 321-foot-tall rocket was placed on the stage for the duration of the lecture.

He touched only briefly on the technical problems that have bedeviled the multibillion-dollar project, and concentrated instead on the SLS’ promise for exploration beyond Earth orbit. NASA’s current plan calls for an uncrewed test flight around the moon to take place in the 2019-2020 time frame, followed by an initial crewed flight in 2023.

Muilenburg sketched out how NASA plans to use the SLS to facilitate the construction of a new international space complex in orbit around the moon, known as the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway. NASA sees that gateway as a jumping-off point for missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. But Muilenburg suggested that the schedule could be accelerated, echoing past statements.

“I’m hopeful this is going to happen during the next decade,” he said. “That’s a very aggressive timeline. Two decades, I’d say at the outermost boundary. But I think we could do this in a decade with the right sustained, focused funding and commitment.”

That last comment could well have been directed at NASA and the White House’s re-energized National Space Council, which only recently laid out the current plan to head for the moon first, and then press onward to Mars. Muilenburg, a member of the council’s Users Advisory Group, is well-acquainted with the ebb and flow of NASA’s past space initiatives.

“Especially for deep-space exploration, sustained, long-term funding is critical,” he said. “What we can’t afford to do is to move forward for three or five years and then stop, and then restart. Those restarts are things that really delay our progress and will prevent us from reaching the outcome.”

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GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of, he is the author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference.” Follow him via, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and MeWe.

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