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Move over, Elon: Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg ‘absolutely’ would go to Mars

Alan Boyle
CNBC’s Becky Quick, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson look on as Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg talks about his Red Planet aspirations. (CNBC / BRT via YouTube)

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg often says that the first person to set foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing-built rocket, but at today’s Business Roundtable CEO Innovation Summit, he made it personal.

“Would you go?” CNBC anchor Becky Quick, the moderator for today’s panel on trends in American innovation, asked Muilenburg.

“I would,” the CEO answered.

“Really?” Quick said.

“Absolutely,” Muilenburg said.

Muilenburg made repeated reference to spaceflight and Boeing’s plans to participate in missions to the moon and Mars in the context of the company’s farthest-flung frontiers for innovation.

He’s basically on board with the plans for exploration beyond Earth orbit that have been laid out by NASA and the White House. Those plans call for the development of a Gateway for operations in lunar orbit during the 2020s, facilitated by NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (built in part by Boeing).

“We’re going to go back to the moon,” Muilenburg said. “We’re going to establish a permanent presence on the moon. This is much different from Apollo.”

NASA’s plan calls for crewed missions to Mars and its moons to begin in the 2030s, powered by the Space Launch System. That’s the basis for Muilenburg’s Boeing-first claim when it comes to Red Planet walkabouts.

“I’m confident that’s going to happen, I’d say before I finish my Boeing career,” the 54-year-old CEO said.

Boeing’s chief competitor in the spaceflight business is SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk. Last month, the 47-year-old Musk said there’s a 70 percent chance that he’ll move to Mars, even though he noted “there’s a good chance you die there.”

For his part, Muilenburg isn’t anticipating a one-way flight. “We only go to Mars on round trips,” he said.

As we found out during October’s GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Muilenburg has already tried on a Boeing spacesuit. One of his fellow panelists at today’s summit in Washington, D.C., JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, was tickled by the idea of seeing his Boeing counterpart on the final frontier.

“When he puts his foot down, he’s going to say, ‘This is one giant leap for mankind, but only one little step for Dennis Muilenburg,” Dimon joked.

Other nuggets from the Business Roundtable Summit:

  • Muilenburg said space exploration “is going to benefit multiple industrial sectors,” just as the Apollo effort of the 1960s spawned a host of high-tech spinoffs. But it’ll be essential to boost education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as STEM. “This country’s short about 2 million STEM workers, compared to what we need in the industry,” Muilenburg said. “That’s a place where government and industry can work together.”
  • Repeating a prediction he made at the GeekWire Summit, Muilenburg said Boeing would be fielding a prototype flying car next year (presumably in league with Aurora Flight Sciences, its recently acquired subsidiary). Dimon said he and a fellow high-profile panelist, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, would be “some of the first buyers of these cars” — and Muilenburg took note. “I’ll get you guys lined up,” he said.
  • Stephenson said high-speed 5G telecommunications networks will change “how the world works.” He said the United States “is definitely ahead” of other countries in the race to 5G, but voiced concern about competition from China. “All the software associated with the equipment that goes into these networks is developed where? China,” he said. “So you have these weak links that I think we as a country are going to have to deal with.”
  • Dimon said the health-care venture that his company and billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway firm are developing with Amazon will be a “long-term thing,” aimed at leveraging wellness programs as well as technology to reduce costs. “It’s not meant [just] for the three of us,” the JPMorgan Chase CEO said. “Initially, it’ll be us. It’ll be open to everybody. We’re hoping that as we learn things, we’ll share with the whole world.”

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