Boeing and Lockheed Martin announced plans on Monday for their United Launch Alliance LLC joint venture to produce a rocket, called Vulcan, by 2019. Competing with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, ULA’s rocket will have reusable engines that would cut satellite-launch costs and enable other commercial space ventures. Boeing will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer, and the company is still innovating and very much at the forefront of air travel and space R&D.
On April 9, Boeing held a second emergency water splashdown test for its CST-100 manned space capsule. The company intends to use the CST-100 to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in the near future, with SpaceX’s Dragon 2 as its only competition for the NASA contracts.
But the path forward will not be easy for Boeing, particularly in space development, as illustrated by its main competitor’s experiences. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket destined for the International Space Station successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, but the plan to recover and reuse the booster failed. Boosters normally are used just once because they fall back to the ground uncontrolled, and this latest experiment showed that there are still huge obstacles to overcome. The landing of the booster on Tuesday was an improvement over the last test in which it disintegrated in a fireball upon impact, but although it landed this time, it tipped over afterwards and did not survive.
Still, Boeing has overcome adversity before, and is undaunted by change. The company weathered a downturn in defense spending, including annual cuts of up to $1 billion from U.S. Air Force Space Command, its largest customer and the world’s largest consumer of military satellites. Boeing, which designed the first satellite to orbit the moon and send back pictures of its surface, is now envisioning a future focused more on private businesses than on huge Pentagon contracts. The decades-old way of doing things is being overturned, as Space Command reinvents how the military uses satellites. A big part of that future could see the military relying on commercial spacecraft to meet defense needs, notes Colorado daily the Gazette.
Meanwhile, global demand for Boeing’s aircraft continues to far outpace what the company can supply and deliver. On Friday Boeing signed a deal with Panama’s Copa Airlines to provide 61 Boeing 737 Max aircraft, which has a list value of $6.6 billion—but as a longtime loyal customer, Copa may get some kind of discount, as is common practice among aircraft makers. This is the biggest deal an American company has ever received from any Panamanian company (and it is carries special symbolic weight as it was announced during the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City.) The 737s are not as wide and expensive as the 777 or 787 models, but they are Boeing’s key aircraft revenue generators and account for 75% of its sizable backlog. Excluding Copa’s order, 66 of the 110 Boeing aircraft ordered this year are the 737 Max model, which is slated to enter service in 2017.
With a solid core aircraft business, and a big role in the emerging private space industry, Boeing will likely have many more happy anniversaries as it stays on the cutting edge.