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Boeing sees more ‘excitement about space’ now than in the last few decades

  • "There's excitement about space that we haven't seen in the last few decades," said Leanne Caret, CEO of Boeing's Defense, Space and Security division.
  • The aerospace giant is "very focused" on growth, especially with expanding the company's satellite business, Caret said.
  • The Boeing executive says that by the time she retires from the company, "we will be traveling in low-Earth orbit in unmanned vehicles."

Boeing Defense, Space and Security division CEO Leanne Caret told CNBC that the aerospace giant is putting a new emphasis on space investment because of the rapidly changing landscape of the industry.

In an exclusive interview earlier this week, Caret called the company's satellite business and space exploration two "key" opportunities to generate more growth.

"I think there's an excitement about space that we haven't seen in the last few decades that's really keeping the conversation going in a positive direction, and the technology is something that can be leveraged across a number of other platforms and weapons systems," Caret said. "So, it's not as if it just benefits one category of the business. It helps across several."

Caret says Boeing's satellite business is getting more exciting, though she has not yet divulged details about how that part of her business is evolving.

Boeing has long developed satellites about the size of a school bus, but the industry's push to downsize is putting new pressure on traditional manufacturers. Microsatellites, as small as a shoebox, are an integral part of commercial and military operators' recent push to cut the cost and size of satellites.

Boeing Intelsat 702MP satellite.
Source: Boeing
Boeing Intelsat 702MP satellite.

Satellite companies like Planet and Spire Global continue to build miniaturized craft to help stream terabytes of data to and from Earth, as cash flows into space start-ups. The microsatellite industry is currently worth $2.92 billion, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. It is expected to grow more than 20 percent annually to a value of more than $7.5 billion in 2022.

Space deals abound

Boeing has no shortage of rivals. The ability to leverage space-based innovations across other industries such as defense and cybersecurity is likely a driving force behind rival Northrop Grumman's nearly $8 billion acquisition of Orbital ATK, announced earlier this week.

On the heels of that deal – the industry's largest in two years – Caret said Boeing is a "buyer" when it comes to acquiring more defense and space assets.

"We are continuing to look at other ways to increase our top line through mergers and acquisitions and we have a continued pipeline we're assessing," she said.

When asked whether Boeing is in any acquisition talks, Caret punted the question, saying "we'll stay away from that."

Competition in the sector continues to grow, from SpaceX and others, and Caret said she's been narrowly focused during the first 18 months in her current role at Boeing. Top of mind are affordability and communication with customers. Caret continues to make sure her teams keep their customers' perspectives in mind, for both commercial and military contracts.

"It's not about us. Without our customers, we don't have a business," she said.

Caret confirmed Boeing is on track to put American astronauts back in space next year. Boeing's Starliner spacecraft is being developed as a part of NASA's commercial crew program. Designed to accommodate up to seven people, Starliner will make its debut test flight in June, with a crewed test flight in August.

SpaceX is also developing a manned spacecraft for the NASA program, the Dragon 2, and is on a similar testing schedule to Boeing.

An artist concept shows Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner flying in space.
Source: Boeing
An artist concept shows Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner flying in space.

Boeing signed a NASA contract in July 2014 to help develop the Space Launch System, a heavy rocket platform. It would be "the most powerful rocket ever built," according to Boeing, but its maiden flight has been pushed back two years to 2019.

"We've seen very strong support for NASA and the program, and we continue to put our best and brightest on it," Caret said.

She also talked about her dream for the autonomous side of Boeing's space business, which includes the experimental X-37B space plane. The unmanned, highly secretive military craft resembles a miniature space shuttle and earlier this year completed a classified U.S. Air Force mission lasting nearly two years in orbit.

The Boeing executive says that by the time she retires from the company "we will be traveling in low-Earth orbit in unmanned vehicles." She compared adapting the autonomous technology in spaceflight to how people grew to trust unmanned trains.

"If you recall back a few years ago, when you would get on a train without a conductor, people would get a bit nervous. Now, it's just part of our natural routine," Caret said.

While she's been at the helm of the Boeing division for less than two years, Caret said space is in her blood, declaring herself "a space baby."

"My folks met on the Saturn 5 program. I was born outside Kennedy Space Center" in Florida, Caret added. "I'll say this: I'm not so sure 'The Jetsons' had it so wrong."