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Politico’s Robert Albritton (left) chats with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg (right) during a space conference. (Politico Live via Facebook)

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg says it’s possible that humans will set foot on Mars in the next decade, and he’s convinced the first people will get there on a Boeing-built rocket.

Muilenburg’s comments, made today during a Q&A at the first Politico Space conference, could be interpreted as yet another challenge to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who also has plans to send people to Mars within a decade.

Politico’s founder and publisher, Robert Allbritton, gave Muilenburg ample opportunities to reflect on the SpaceX effect during the session.

At one point, he referred indirectly to SpaceX’s maiden Falcon Heavy launch, which sent Musk’s Tesla Roadster into deep space in February. Allbritton jokingly told Muilenburg that he assumed Boeing had no plans to send a Camaro into space.

Muilenburg went along with the joke: “We might pick up the one that’s out there and bring it back,” he said.

Boeing’s CEO, president and chairman was more serious about his company’s space aspirations, which go back to Project Mercury, if you count the companies that Boeing has assimilated over the decades. “Space has always been part of the DNA of our company,” Muilenburg said.

He acknowledged that America’s capability for human space exploration have been allowed to “wither over the last couple of decades, and we need to rebuild it, reinvigorate it.”

Muilenburg clearly sees NASA’s deep-space exploration, which depends on the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and the Orion capsule, as the means to rebuild. Boeing is a prime contractor for SLS, which is due to have its first uncrewed test flight in the 2019-2020 time frame.

“What we’re working on today with Space Launch System is bigger than the Apollo program,” Muilenburg said. “Most of the country doesn’t know about it yet.”

He said the next steps, including the establishment of an outpost in lunar orbit as a jumping-off point for trips to Mars and other deep-space destinations, were “not that far away.”

“I certainly anticipate that we’re going to put the first person on Mars during my lifetime, and I’m hopeful that we’ll do it in the next decade,” said Muilenburg, who is 54. “And I’m convinced that the first person that gets to Mars is going to get there on a Boeing rocket.”

That’s a more ambitious timeline than NASA’s. The current plan calls for crewed trips to Mars and its moons to start in the 2030s. In contrast, SpaceX has an aspirational goal of sending humans to Mars in its yet-to-be-built BFR spaceship by the mid-2020s.

This isn’t the first time Muilenburg has suggested a Boeing-built rocket could beat SpaceX to the Red Planet. He made similar pronouncements last year and in 2016. (When Musk was told about last year’s challenge, he tweeted a two-word response: “Do it.”)

The reference to getting there in a decade is an added twist, but the Boeing CEO made clear that meeting that schedule would require “consistent, reliable funding” — presumably at higher levels than is currently the case.

Muilenburg said the new competition from the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin made for “an interesting combination of cultures” in the aerospace industry, and was “good for the country, good for the world.”

He noted that space exploration had a benefit beyond dollars and cents, and pointed to the example of his own children. Muilenburg said his daughter was thrilled to try on a Boeing Starliner spacesuit during a recent family visit to Florida, while his son was entranced by the work being done on SLS.

“The inspiration quotient is very high,” Muilenburg said.

* Getting to Mars by 2028 depends on a lot of “consistent, reliable funding.”

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