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Alan Boyle and Dennis Muilenburg
GeekWire’s Alan Boyle listens to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg during a fireside chat at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

A decade from now, Boeing will still be primarily known as an airplane company, the company’s CEO says. But some of the things we’ll call airplanes might be what we’d call rocket ships today. And whatever you call them, Boeing will make them.

That’s the vision laid out today at the GeekWire Summit by Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, president and chairman. Rather than seeing a sharp division between the world of atmospheric flight and the world of rocket launches, Muilenburg sees a continuum that stretches from personal-sized air taxis to traditional aircraft to hypersonic transports to a whole family of Boeing-built commercial spacecraft.

“Within a decade, you’re going to see low-Earth-orbit space travel become much more commonplace,” he told me. “Not only going to the International Space Station, as we will today, but also other destinations in space. Space tourism, space factories … that whole ecosystem is evolving, and we’ll be deeply involved in the transportation system that will enable access.”

Boeing’s first piece of that space transportation system is the CST-100 Starliner capsule, which is designed to start carrying astronauts to and from the space station next year. “You can think of that as our first vehicle in what in the longer term will be a portfolio of commercial space vehicles to go along with our commercial airplanes,” Muilenburg said.

That vision is being fleshed out in a $1 million study that Boeing is getting ready to send to NASA in December. Boeing is also working with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and other aerospace industry representatives on new approaches to air traffic management, some of which take advantage of artificial intelligence.

More from the GeekWire Summit: Boeing CEO says first operational flying cars are less than 5 years out

“In the future, you have commercial airplanes flying as you have today, and in dense urban environments, you might have these small mobility vehicles,” Muilenburg said. “You might have hypersonic vehicles traveling at higher speed through the same airspace. And then to get space vehicles into orbit, you need launch corridors for these space vehicles. So, that all needs an integrated traffic system. That’s part of what we’re working on with NASA and the FAA.”

New technologies and business models are leading some transportation companies to rebrand themselves. For example, Ford prefers to see itself as a “mobility company” rather than an automobile company. But Muilenburg has a different perspective on how people will see Boeing’s brand 10 years from now.

“They’ll still see us as an airplane company. Airplanes are in our blood,” he said. “I just think the definition of ‘airplanes’ will broaden over time. We’ve been in the airplane business now for a century, and we’ve just started our second century. Over this next century, airplanes will evolve to include these urban mobility solutions, hypersonic airplanes, space planes. So we’ll still be an airplane company, but the definition of airplanes will be much bigger.”

Other tidbits from Muilenburg’s talk:

  • Muilenburg acknowledged that the rapid ramp-up of production for the 737 MAX “has been challenging for our supply chain,” which caused unfinished planes to stack up this summer outside Boeing’s Renton factory. He said Boeing’s recovery plan has been clearing the backlog — and hinted that next week’s report on September plane deliveries will show that “we’re continuing to make progress there.”
  • Boeing is still considering its options for what’s likely to be its next new type of airplane, known variously as the New Mid-Market Aircraft, NMA, middle-of-the-market airplane or 797. “We do see a marketplace there for four to five thousand aircraft,” Muilenburg said. A decision on whether to go ahead with production, and on where the plane will be built if the go-ahead is given, is likely to be announced next year. Will it be built in the Seattle area? Muilenburg wouldn’t tip his hand, but gave a shout-out to Washington state’s nearly 66,000 Boeing employees. “We’ve been strong here for our entire history, and we’ll continue to be strong here,” he said.
  • After years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, Boeing is closing in on its first deliveries of next-generation KC-46A tanker planes to the Air Force. In July, Muilenburg said the milestone delivery was expected to come this month, but today he said only that it’d come before the end of the year. “We’re within that window, and now really just in the final stages of planning,” he said.
  • Muilenburg repeated his oft-stated view that the first person to step foot on Mars will get there on a rocket that Boeing has a hand in building. That’s a reference to NASA’s Space Launch System, which Boeing and other contractors are currently developing. The first test launch of an SLS is scheduled for 2020, and NASA has said trips to Mars won’t start until the 2030s. Meanwhile, SpaceX says it intends to send crews to Mars on its yet-to-be-built BFR rocket in the 2020s. Muilenburg didn’t directly address the dueling timelines, but subtly called SpaceX’s schedule into question. “Today there’s just one rocket actually being built that has the capacity to go back to the moon and to Mars, and that’s the Space Launch System,” he said.
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