The CEO of the Boeing Company spoke to a packed hall in the North Ballroom of the Purdue Memorial Union on Boeing’s role in the future of human spaceflight. In this year’s installment of the William E. Boeing Distinguished Lecture – named for the company’s founder – CEO Dennis Muilenburg addressed Purdue students and faculty Wednesday night.
Tom Shih, head of Purdue’s Aeronautics and Astronautics program and the man responsible for bringing Muilenburg to campus, also spoke briefly. “The Boeing Company and Purdue University have had a very long and wonderful relationship for decades,” he said, talking of how Purdue provides alumni for Boeing’s workforce, and Boeing in turn entrusts Purdue students with many of its important projects.
Mung Chiang, the Dean of the College of Engineering, gave Muilenburg’s introduction, but not until after praising his own school. Looking over the audience, he exclaimed, “This is a full house here … we are the largest of the top ten engineering schools in the country. This is one way to look at how large we are, and also how interested in the lecture we are. … And there are over 1300 Boilermakers working in the Boeing Company.
“Mr. Muilenburg grew up on a farm in the great state of Iowa,” Chiang said. “He started, as some of you in the audience today, as an engineering intern in the Boeing Company. … Now, under his leadership, the Boeing Company’s business is booming like never before.”
Muilenburg opened his lecture by saying, “This is the 103rd year of Boeing. Not quite as old as Purdue, but a company with a proud history and a great, great future ahead of us.”
Muilenburg declared his intent to focus on human space exploration, and he praised Purdue as “the cradle of astronauts.”
“Connect, Protect, Explore, Inspire” – he said of Boeing’s mission.
By “Connect,” Muilenburg meant both connecting people through airliners and telecommunication satellites. He spoke of exciting times for both industries. “Every year, about 150 million people in Asia fly for the first time in their life …. And if you go up into space today, the company that has the most satellites on orbit is the Boeing Company.”
Boeing fills its mission to “Protect” through its prestigious relationship with and work for the Armed Forces. As for “Explore” and “Inspire," these were the themes that played against the backdrop of Outer Space to fill out Muilenburg’s highly optimistic lecture – every moment of it boasting of Boeing’s great history and greater future. “We were there when the space business was invented,” he said, “and we were there every step of the way. … What do we gain? That sense of the infinite frontier.”
Muilenburg went on to describe five of his company’s most exciting spacecraft projects – each destined for stunning success, while Muilenburg said nothing of any project’s actual history of delays and cost overruns.
These five projects were the International Space Station, in whose construction Boeing has been intimately involved since 1998; the CST-100 Starliner, designed to launch atop an Atlas 5 and take both astronauts and tourists into Low Earth Orbit; the X-37B, a secretive, unmanned military spaceplane with endurance records in excess of 700 days; the Phantom Express, a vertical-launch, horizontal spaceplane designed to launch daily and carry small rockets halfway to orbit; and the Space Launch System.
Muilenburg is optimistic about the Space Launch System.
“We will have the first test launch next year,” he said, describing an unscrewed flight around the Moon, before astronauts fly in 2022 or 2023 to begin work on the Lunar Gateway.
“And I am firmly convinced,” he added, “that the first human being who sets foot on Mars – the next Neil Armstrong – will get there on this rocket. …. These things may seem futuristic, and they are futuristic, but they are happening now. … (We are) creating an inspiration quotient that all of us can share. … It’s inspiring for our country, and it’s inspiring for our world.”
After the lecture, Muilenburg took questions from the Purdue students who attended, many of whom eagerly lined up at four microphones.
Muilenburg’s favorite query came from a young woman who asked, “In your 33-year career at Boeing, what is the best day of work you’ve ever had?”
Muilenburg couldn’t settle on a single experience. He first cited the day when, after four years of work, the first airplane of which he was chief engineer took off with a close friend at the controls. And then he told about a time when, as CEO, he convinced pilot Steve "Bull" Schmidt to let him have half an hour at the controls of an experimental fighter jet.
“When you’re the CEO,” he said, “you don’t get to do a lot of stuff like that. … There’s nothing like flying.”
Jakob Hartl, a graduate student in Aerospace Systems, afterward said he had found out about the lecture through email and a professor’s recommendations, and came away with a positive impression. “I think it met my expectations. It was a very good, motivating lecture.”
As to whether there was anything else he wished Muilenburg had covered, Hartl said “Not off the top of my mind,” but later demurred, saying “I would like to see more emphasis on the social and political problems of space exploration. … instead of just technical questions.”