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)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

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?

Mueller: Well, if I were a thirty-year-old pilot I’d probably have a completely different view of life, and might even climb on if I thought there was a positive chance of success. But being a reasonably conservative guy, I’d want to understand the design better than I do before I committed to doing anything on it. 

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus