Interview: George Mueller

One of the guiding geniuses behind the Apollo program

George Mueller then (wearing glasses at left); and now. (NASA/ Paul Buchanan Photography)
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Dr. George Mueller headed NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs, and kicked off the Skylab and space shuttle programs. His management practices are widely credited with keeping the space agency on track to achieve a lunar landing before the end of the 1960s. He left NASA in 1969 to work in the private sector, and has received many prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science and three NASA Distinguished Service Medals. He is this year's recipient of the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for lifetime achievement. Mueller spoke with Associate Editor Mike Klesius in January.

Air & Space: As NASA added thousands of employees each year during the 1960s, you periodically had to reorganize and streamline the space agency. Was the management success of Apollo as big as the technological one?

Mueller: I would say that the management challenges were certainly as great as the technical challenges, although both were rather large. And as you mention, thousands of employees. Most of those were not at NASA. And one of the real challenges, of course, was trying to get them all working on the same program at the same time. That was why I organized it the way I did at the beginning of the program.

You know this is the set up of five boxes at headquarters and each of the centers and each of the major contractors, so that we all had a communication in depth and in parallel, so that we didn’t lose things in the process. I thought [it worked] and I think that as people got used to the feeling of it, they appreciated it. And that really was a fallout from the ballistic missile program, while so often these other disciplines were not really followed at the beginning of the program, and by the time you got to the end, boy, you had a really major problem of catching up. 

A & S: Your decision to pursue “all-up testing” on the Saturn V—flying live rather than dummy stages each time—was arguably the most crucial factor in keeping the program on schedule. What gave you the confidence to push that idea, even with Werner von Braun’s initial resistance?

Mueller: Well, one thing that gave me the confidence is that there wasn’t any other way we were going to get the program done on the schedule that we had. The other thing though was the experience on the ballistic missile program where, if you do stage by stage testing, you have to design a new vehicle each time you add a new stage to it. That’s not very productive in terms of the time it takes. And also if you lose one of the stages—you’ll lose one sometime in the course of the operations anyhow—so you have at least a chance of getting all the data you need from the first launch rather than having to do three or four or five launches to get it.

A & S: Do you recall a moment or conversation when you convinced von Braun about the necessity of all-up testing?

Mueller: We had a regular monthly meeting with the centers, and it was at one of those after, oh, three or four months into the program, in 1963. We had a meeting where we were discussing this thing [all-up testing.] Bob Seamans [then NASA’s associate administrator] was there, and so von Braun’s people tried to convince Bob that all-up testing was a foolish thing to do, and Bob, bless his soul, listened to them, heard all they had to say, and then said, “You better talk to George about it.” So that was probably the most vocal opposition that we ran into. I had an ally in Bob. That was good, because he was the lead technical guy on Webb’s staff. 

A & S: Were you comfortable with the decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon after the Saturn V had flown only twice, and unmanned?

Mueller: It wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been comfortable. I spent about four months that summer looking at every possible way that it could fail, and convinced myself that it wasn’t going to fail. So we went forward with it.

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