| 03.18.2018

SpaceX cofounder discusses journey from logging to rocket design


As a college student in the early 1980s, Tom Mueller spent his summer months working as a logger to pay for his education at the University of Idaho.

Three decades later, Mueller has established himself as one of the leading global experts in the field of spacecraft propulsion as a co-founder of SpaceX.

Josh Grissom | Argonaut Tom Mueller, keynote speaker of the Engineering Expo, speaks Friday in the Vandal Ballroom of the Bruce Pitman Center.

Josh Grissom | Argonaut
Tom Mueller, keynote speaker of the Engineering Expo, speaks Friday in the Vandal Ballroom of the Bruce Pitman Center.

Mueller discussed his journey during the keynote address of the UI Engineering Design EXPO Friday afternoon.

Mueller said his path to becoming a rocket designer resulted from a conversation with a college professor in Moscow. Mueller said he initially enrolled in the university to learn how to be an aircraft mechanic.

“This professor asked me, “Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or designs the plane?”” Mueller said. “I told him I wanted to be the guy who designs it. He then said that I should be an engineer.”

That conversation led Mueller to pursue courses in thermodynamics and mechanical vibration as he pursued a mechanical engineering degree.

Mueller said his college experience was not the only motivation to pursue a career in rocket design. He said he inherited his uncle”s chemistry set as a child and used it to build powerful model rockets.

“It was a real chemistry set back in those days,” Mueller said. “Not the current versions kids use that is much safer.”

Mueller said his love for science prompted him to move to California in 1985 to look for a job in the aerospace industry. After two years, he landed in a position with automotive company TRW as a propulsion development engineer.

Mueller said his first duty involved testing rocket fuel containing the highly-explosive substance chlorine trifluoride. He said he did not fully realize the danger of the material until it shattered a metal pipe during a testing round.

“That was my first experience with rockets at TRW,” Mueller said.

While at the company, Mueller worked with liquid propellants for small satellite thrusters and large booster engines. He said he left TRW after 15 years because he felt as though his skills would be better suited in another area.

“Just doing rockets at work wasn”t enough for me,” Mueller said.

Mueller would later be introduced to business magnate Elon Musk in January of 2002 through a contact in the Reaction Research Society. He said Musk presented an idea to create an aerospace company, and invited Mueller to join the organization.

“I talked to my wife, and she agreed that I had to do this,” Mueller said. “One of my better decisions was to leave my career at TRW and start my career with this company.”

The SpaceX company founded by Mueller and Musk quickly gained prominence within the aeronautics community and established itself as one of the leading organizations in space travel. The company currently has 4,000 employees and has recorded 70 launches.

“We design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft to revolutionize space technology,” Mueller said. “We have the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

On April 8, SpaceX was responsible for the first successful post-launch landing in ocean waters, as the company”s Falcon 9 rocket touched down on a barge out at sea. Mueller said the unprecedented landing was made even more difficult by the high winds during launch day.

“When you have high winds, you have high waves,” he said. “We landed during a time where there was the worst set of wind and wave conditions.”

Mueller said the company has the goal of cutting costs associated with space travel by creating reusable rockets, such as the one that landed at sea.

“Falcon 9 was the first rocket completely developed during the 21st century,” Mueller said. “It is designed to be fully reusable with landing legs and grid fins.”

Mueller discussed components of the Falcon 9, including the Merlin engines and carbon landing legs. He said one of the most important aspects of the rocket is the fairing used to protect the spacecraft from damage.

“These rockets are not very aerodynamic, so you have to protect them from the atmosphere,” he said.

Mueller concluded his address by providing some advice to prospective engineering students at the university.

“It is very difficult to get into SpaceX – the bar has been set very high,” he said. “We look for people who have done something extraordinary, like leading a good work project or having a resume from the top school. I would just say to students that they should study hard and be a good leader.”

Josh Grissom  can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @GoshJrissom

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