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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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. 

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