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 2011.
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.
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?