Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg bragged that his company will beat SpaceX in the race to put the first person on Mars. In response, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted “Do it”.

Muilenburg made his statement on the TV program “Mad Money”. “Eventually we’re going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket.”

There’s a lively discussion on the Internet about what Musk meant with this tweet. Some people read his tweet as a “challenge accepted” statement because Musk is confident that SpaceX will win. But it’s more likely that Musk actually wants to encourage Boeing to beat SpaceX. Musk strongly believes that humanity must go to Mars, and who provides the ride is a secondary issue for him.

SpaceX was born from Musk’s desire to colonise Mars. He sees Mars as the first step for humanity to become a multi-planet species, so we can continue to exist when our home planet ultimately comes to the end of its life. In 2001 he wondered when the first manned mission to Mars would be. “So I went to the NASA website to try to figure that out,” Musk said in an interview with Salman Khan in 2013. “And then I discovered that NASA had no plans to send people to Mars, or even back to the moon.”

Earth life on Mars

Musk supposed that no investments were being made in manned missions because people were no longer excited by space travel. He conceived the Mars Oasis project to change that: he wanted to use a rocket to send a greenhouse and seeds to Mars in order to grow plants there. His idea was that pictures of the first life on Mars would rekindle the space excitement of the 1960s.

With a fresh wad of cash in his pocket – 165 million dollars from the sale of the PayPal online payment system – Musk went looking for rockets. They turned out to be more expensive than he thought. He was willing to put half of his PayPal money into the project, with no expectation of any financial return. But during his research on rockets he made a remarkable discovery: the materials making up the individual components of a rocket – the aluminium, titanium, copper and so on – account for only two per cent of the price of the rocket.


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Where there’s a will, Musk looks for a way

He also discovered that people were still interested in space exploration. “I thought the will wasn’t there. But there is actually plenty of will if people think there is a way.” That made the Mars Oasis project, as a sort of cheerleader for space travel, irrelevant. Musk: “So then I thought, I need to work on the way. How hard is it really to make a rocket?”

According to Musk, the key question is to find a more efficient way to transform the component materials into a rocket. “I had meetings with experts just to see if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. I didn’t see any catch, so I started SpaceX.”

Who will win Space Race 2.0?

At the International Astronautical Congress in September this year, Musk announced that the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket, or as some call it, the Big Fucking Rocket) will carry the first people to Mars in 2024.

In the Mad Money interview, Muilenburg said the Space Launch System being built by Boeing for NASA is in the final assembly stage. The first test flight – a slingshot mission around the Moon – is scheduled for 2019. “I’m hopeful that we’ll make a mission to Mars in the next decade”, said Muilenburg

Which of them will be the first to put a person on Mars? Time will tell. It probably doesn’t matter to Musk. The goal of his Mars Oasis mission has already been achieved: colonisation of the Red Planet is again prominently present in the collective awareness.