Aircraft manufacturing conglomerate Boeing has historically been seen as a leader in space exploration technology, but in light of a talk given by the company’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg at Northwestern Wednesday evening, this perception should probably be re-evaluated. By and large, Muilenberg’s talk lacked substantive vision and realistic plans. Given that Boeing is one of the top post-graduation destinations for NU students studying both engineering and the social sciences, this should serve as somewhat of a red flag for students looking to make an impact in the space industry.
Muilenburg sought to present a vision of human spaceflight in which the lines between airplanes and orbital rockets are blurred (perhaps to be expected from the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer). In theory, such technological advances might lead to efficiency gains or cheaper access to space. Muilenburg highlighted several new advanced-technology initiatives through which Boeing seeks to make such vehicles a reality. These included a strategic investment in a British firm seeking to make a hybrid jet/rocket engine, and a forthcoming military-contracting program known as the “Phantom Express,” which seeks to launch small satellites on the back of a hypersonic spaceplane.
Unfortunately, Muilenburg’s lecture was light on discussion of how Boeing will make such projects economically competitive in a changing space industry. Low-cost launch providers such as SpaceX have wreaked havoc on Boeing’s space launch business. When asked about Boeing’s forthcoming response to such companies, Muilenburg pointed to Boeing’s spaceplane initiatives, claiming that the Phantom Express would itself represent “an order of magnitude improvement” in payload per dollar over reusable conventional rockets.
However, this is simply untrue. Sometime in the 2020s, Phantom Express is slated to deliver 3,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit with a price tag of $5 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can deliver 140,660 pounds to Low Earth Orbit at $90 million per launch. Even if Phantom Express meets its projected goals (the space industry is famous for running over budget and under performance), it would be 2.5 times more expensive than Falcon Heavy is today on the payload per dollar metric. Boeing, then, seems slated to wield influence in the space industry only as an archaic legacy competitor likely to be slowly – or quickly – pushed aside by nimbler firms.
There is undeniably a subset of Northwestern students for whom obtaining a cushy corporate job is the highest priority post-graduation. For those students, Boeing probably remains a great career fit. But students looking to drive genuine technological change in the space industry should probably look elsewhere.