Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg offered an unusual throw down against SpaceX. He appeared on CNBC and declared that the first person to land on Mars would fly there thanks to the rocket that Boeing is the prime contractor of, the space launch system. He also claimed that the first flight of the SLS would take place in 2019 and would consist of a slingshot flight around the moon. SpaceX’s Elon Musk had a piffy response to his counterpart’s claim.

Duel of the rockets

Muilenberg’s claim elicited a great deal of derision on social media.

The Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket conceived in the wake of President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation return to the moon program, has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule slippages. Muilenberg aside, NASA thinks that the first flight of the SLS will happen in 2020 and not 2019.

On the other hand, SpaceX’s version of a heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, has had problems of its own. The Falcon Heavy was initially supposed to make its debut in 2013. Currently, the first flight test is scheduled for January 2018. The situation calls to mind that the adage of rocket science being difficult applies to nimble commercial companies as well as stodgy old NASA and old-line aerospace companies such as Boeing.

What about the Big Falcon Rocket?

Recently, Musk announced that the debut of a huge, totally reusable rocket ship, the BFR, known decorously as the Big Falcon Rocket, will be in 2022.

The BFR would be capable of taking 150 tons to low Earth orbit, about the same as the final version of the SLS, but far cheaper as it would be a reusable launch system. The rocket would be used for missions to the moon, Mars, and other places, as well as point to point suborbital flights on Earth. It would be able to take cargo or crew to deep space destinations and fuel in a tanker mode to low Earth orbit.

SpaceX is already building some of the components of the BFR, including the raptor engine and the fuel tank. The company’s plan for Mars envisions a fleet of BFRs, two with crews and two with cargo, flying to the Red Planet in 2024. By contrast, NASA’s plans suggest the first footsteps happening in the 2030s.

History suggests that SpaceX is not likely to meet its goals for the development of the BFR, which it describes as “aspirational” in any case. The company is expected to need NASA funding to bring its planned rocket ship to reality. So far the Space Launch System has cost $10 billion.