A & S: Could that that sort of bold decision happen at NASA today?
Mueller: I don’t believe it would be possible, from what I know of the situation at NASA. We have too many people who believe in absolute safety, and there is no such thing. And unfortunately, if you designed your program to be absolutely safe, you’d also be sure you’d absolutely never fly. So at that time we were willing to take a reasonable risk, but not an unreasonable risk. If we could figure out a way for it to fail that we couldn’t fix, we wouldn’t go.
A & S: Were there ever times in the 1960s when you lay awake at night wondering if NASA could really make the moon landing happen?
Mueller: No, I never had a real doubt that we could. The only time I really worried about it was probably around the time of the Apollo 1 fire. And that wasn’t because I thought we had a technical problem, but I thought we could have a political problem that would keep us from doing it. It was a national worst doubt too.
A & S: You’ve been called the “Father of the Space Shuttle.” What are you feeling as you watch the end of the program approaching?
Mueller: Well I’m sorry to see it ending, and particularly because we don’t have a follow-on that is capable of doing the same work. And although there’s a lot of discussion about it, and has been for some time, the fact of the matter is that keeping the shuttle flying until you have something new is going to be the least expensive and safest way of going forward. That’s where I disagree with Mike Griffin in that sense.
A & S: After the loss of Columbia eight years ago, what were your thoughts, going forward, about the shuttle program?
Mueller: I was surprised and astonished, as everyone else was, that a piece of foam could break the tiles on the shuttle wing. That’s something we had not really considered as being possible. But we learned otherwise. And that’s probably characteristic of every one of the problems we’ve had in the program, where we haven’t done sufficient testing to really understand all of the ways that things can fail. One thing I’ve learned from the Apollo program is that it’s hard to do enough testing of all the pieces to be sure you really understand what they’re capable of doing, and what they should do.
A & S: Does NASA ask you for advice these days?
Mueller: Not really. They haven’t asked me for advice for some while. Ever since I took the opportunity of participating in the Kistler Aerospace vehicle.