At the time the time of Boeing’s trip with Hubbard, the only people flying were amateurs and small operations that employed old war pilots. Little more than a decade after his initial flight, Boeing’s company controlled 50 percent of the combined airline and aircraft manufacturing industry. Their passenger service (later rebranded to United Airlines) was the industry’s largest.
Now an $82 billion behemoth, Boeing aspires to a new frontier: private space travel. The company, contracted by NASA, is currently working on a project to send astronauts to the International Space Station. And, as was the case with Boeing’s early passenger-service ambitions, they aren’t alone. SpaceX, a company launched in 2002 by Elon Musk, also won a contract from NASA to send astronauts to the space station. This month, despite a recent explosion during testing for the Amos-6 mission, Musk will provide details on the much-anticipated Mars Colonial Transporter project. As Musk described at a conference earlier this year, the project aims to shuttle thousands of people to Mars by 2024 for a cost of about $500,000 per trip.
Musk’s plan is audacious, but if successful, SpaceX would be the first company to launch a passenger space-travel service designed for the masses. And they would beat Boeing by using one of the oldest plays in the 100-year-old company’s playbook.
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In 1926 Hubbard came to Boeing with an idea. As detailed in Airlines and Air Mail, he suggested that the two men create a more ambitious air-mail service than the one Hubbard had started six years earlier. That year the United States Postal Service had announced plans to privatize mail delivery after a series of accidents involving their pilots. The Postmaster General told companies he would divide the country into routes and give contracts to the lowest bidder in each region. Hubbard—knowing it would require deep pockets from a wealthy man like Boeing—suggested they join forces and pursue one of the most lucrative routes, San Francisco to Chicago. There was just one small hitch in the plan. Boeing wasn’t an airline; they were an airplane manufacturer.
Boeing quickly hired some of the smartest men in the industry and launched Boeing Air Transport. Compared to more established competitors like Western Air Express, the company was inexperienced. This proved problematic since the Postal Service made it clear they would award contracts to safe, reliable companies. But Boeing had an advantage over nearly every company in the industry: They had a plane capable of carrying passengers.
Two years earlier, the Boeing Airplane Company had responded to a request by the Postal Service—then delivering air-mail for the country—to build a plane capable of the job. Clairmont Egtvedt, the company’s chief designer, drew up plans for and later developed the Model 40. The Postal Service only ordered one plane, however, and Egtvedt was forced to shelf the project. Then in their rush to launch Boeing Air Transport, the Model 40 was revived with one important change. Egtvedt replaced the water-cooled engine with an air-cooled engine that was lighter and took up less space. This would prove to be one of the most important innovations of the decade.
On January 16, 1927, William Boeing and his wife, Bertha, boarded a train for Washington D.C. to attend the opening of the air-mail bids. After the Postmaster General opened the bids, the couple went to their hotel room to wait on a decision. According to Van der Linden, they both nervously drank scotch highballs in anticipation while a committee reviewed each bid and vetted the companies. Finally they received a call. Boeing’s D.C. representative answered the phone and then yelled into the receiver, “You don’t mean to say we got it?” The next day it was announced that Boeing Air Transport had won one of the country’s most important mail contracts.