A&S Interview: George Mueller

One of the guiding geniuses behind the Apollo program

George Mueller follows the progress of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. (NASA)
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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. 

A & SAres 1-x launched in 2009 with a dummy upper stage. Would you have argued for an all-up flight?

Mueller: Well I surely would have. And I think they would have too if they’d had enough money to do it. But they of course hadn’t developed the other stages, which is a failure in its own right. If you’re going to build a vehicle, you better be sure you understand what the total vehicle is before you start testing. I wasn’t directly involved in the Ares program, so I really don’t know what the real constraints were. But I think that NASA has been in a position of being funded for its own uses but not funded for producing anything. You need to have enough money to develop the things that you want to fly, or else you can’t do it. 

A & SHave you supported Constellation? Do you want to see humans back on the moon?

Mueller: I thought that was the correct way to go forward. You know, we only just touched down on the moon. We haven’t really explored all of the aspects of the moon that could be used to keep a colony going on the moon. It was clear from the beginning that we ought to explore the poles because that’s where water would be if there were any water on the moon. Water is the key component of all of our activities. We’re primarily water based as a species. In a real sense, in our exploration, we ought to start with the identification of the resources to go forward, using the native resources available in order to build a sound and continuing program. It’s interesting when you think about it, when you think of the work being done at the South Pole at Antarctica, it started out with a two-man journey, and has now built into an outpost of fair complexity over a period of years. And that’s the kind of exploration we need in our neighboring bodies so that we can really understand this solar system that we’re born of. 

A & SSkylab was another of your huge contributions, and a major success. Was Skylab useful in today’s era of the International Space Station? For example, was there something that happened on Skylab that prevented certain mistakes that might have been made today?

Mueller: Well, that’s a complex question to answer. I think that Skylab really was a major step forward. I think it probably was a better space station than the ISS, because it had one thing in its favor: that was its size. It was a place where one could live for considerable periods of time and have a relatively normal lifestyle. In that sense, we’ve never managed to duplicate the capabilities of Skylab. On the other hand, the joint activities on the ISS have been a tremendous step forward in terms of bringing the various groups around the world together on a major project. So in that sense it has been a resounding success. And if the Saturn V had kept flying, the ISS would be a much better space station. 

A & S:  Did we walk away too early from Skylab and the Saturn V?

Mueller: I really think it was a great loss, just as walking away from the shuttle will be a great loss.

A & SHaving headed up Kistler Aerospace, what are your thoughts about commercial rockets to ferry cargo and people to and from the ISS?

Mueller: It would be a great idea, but I think that really the fundamental reason that Kistler failed was because there wasn’t a clear commitment on the part of any customer to use it. Until you have a commitment to use a vehicle of that sort, or someone with enough money to build it, you can’t really get enough money to build it. SpaceX, I think, has managed to convince Congress at least that it is worthwhile funding, so it has been getting funding for carrying forward the program. Where, for one reason or another, Kistler failed to. 

A & S:  You just said SpaceX has convinced Congress. Have they convinced you?

Mueller: SpaceX is a step backward. It’s building an expendable vehicle. Until we can get the cost of getting into space down by using reusable vehicles, we’re never going to get free access to space. And that’s just a fundamental problem that I recognized at the time of Apollo, when we started the shuttle program. But also the shuttle is a good example of how you failed to do what you need to do. In that case, they made a partially reusable vehicle. And partial reusability has most of the difficulties of both the expendables and the reusables. So it is not a very constructive way to go forward. And that was back when people asked my advice occasionally. And I suggested that the shuttle should be fully reusable. 

A & S:  In light of SpaceX’s two orbital successes, do you think they’re on the way to fulfilling the business case for a commercial space industry?

Mueller: Well it’s hard to tell. I don’t think that whatever they are doing, they are going to get the cost of transportation into space down to the point where it should be for a vigorous space program. We looked at low-cost expendable vehicles from about 1958 on, so that’s not a new idea. And its fundamental problem is that you throw the vehicle away every time you fly. There’s no way to get the cost down when you do that. 

A & S: Actually, Elon Musk has said he wants to do everything he can to make Falcon 9 reusable. Obviously, so far, he hasn’t been able to accomplish that. Do you think there’s any chance he will accomplish it?

Mueller: You know, I hope he does. But I doubt if he can manage to accomplish that from where he is today. I think he’s got another generation to go through. 

A & S: If offered a free orbital flight on Falcon 9, would you take it?

Mueller: No, I’m afraid not. For one thing I’m too old. But for another thing, I really enjoy living. And that’s a risk I wouldn’t want to take. 

A & S: In a scenario where you were a 30-year-old pilot, how many flights would you like to see it take before you climbed on?


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