Mueller joined SpaceX as a founding employee in 2002 as the VP of Propulsion Engineering
Meet Tom Mueller, the Rocket Engineer Who Made Elon Musk's SpaceX Dream A Reality
When Elon Musk was pushed out of PayPal as CEO in a famous corporate coup that saw Peter Thiel and Max Levchin take over control of the startup, he began contemplating other opportunities. The success of PayPal always looked like a stepping stone for Musk rather than a final destination.
Musk revisited his childhood fantasies which included space and rockets. He decamped from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles which gave him access to the space industry. California has mild and consistent weather and thus became a favored city for aeronautics since the 1920s when Lockheed Aircraft set up shop. It was soon followed by Howard Hughes, the US Air Force, NASA and Boeing among others.
Musk joined the Mars Society and wanted to send mice to Mars and the mice were supposed to procreate along the way. The journey would take several months. Rough calculations estimated that the journey would cost around $15m. Musk’s resolve grew even stronger when he checked the NASA website and there were no plans to go to Mars. He told Wired then, “Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing. It seemed crazy.”
Musk then decided to go to Russia to buy a used Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from the Russians for use as a launch vehicle. Musk had $20m which he thought would be enough to buy 3 ICBMs. The Russians wanted $8m for each. Musk stormed out of the meeting disgusted.
During the flight back home, Musk made a spreadsheet detailing what it would take to build, assemble and launch rockets of his own. He decided that he would start his own rocket company. Despite well-known stories of millionaires starting rocket companies and failing, Musk thought he had an edge. That is when he turned to Tom Mueller.
Tom Mueller was born in St. Maries, Idaho in October 1963 to a father who was a logger and wanted Mueller to continue in his footsteps. Mueller compares his life to Homer Hickman, who was born to a coal miner father and grew up to be an engineer instead. Mueller grew up building and flying Estes model rockets and built a rocket out of his father’s oxy-acetylene welder and discovered it could produce more thrust by adding water to it.
Mueller attended the University of Idaho graduating with a Bachelors's degree in Mechanical Engineering. He went on to earn a Master's degree in the same field at Loyola Marymount University at the Frank R Seaver College of Science and Engineering. Fresh out of college he started working at Hughes Aircraft on satellites before going to TRW Space and Electronics.
He worked at TRW for 15 years experimenting with crazy types of propellants and oversaw the development of the company’s TR-106 engine, a giant machine fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen. Mueller joined the Reaction Research Society which is a group formed in 1943 to encourage building and firing rockets as a hobby.
He traveled to the Mojave Desert regularly to launch the rockets with other members. Mueller built an eighty-pound engine that could produce 13,000 pounds of thrust. His conservative bosses at TRW dismissed Mueller’s engines which frustrated him.
In January 2002, Mueller was at a workshop of a friend called John Garvey. Garvey had quit his job at McDonell Douglas to start his own workshop in Huntington Beach and it was the size of a six-car garage. Musk dropped by on a Sunday and began peppering Mueller with questions about the 80-pound engine that he was carrying on his shoulder. Musk wanted to know how much thrust it had and if he had ever worked on anything bigger and how much it would cost Mueller to build an engine. Musk and Mueller ended up chatting for hours and Mueller invited him to his house to continue the discussion. Musk knew that he had met someone who knew the ins and outs of making rockets. In June 2002, Musk founded SpaceX with Mueller as a founding employee.
Mueller started at SpaceX as the Vice President of Propulsion Engineering before becoming CTO of Propulsion. He was in charge of the team that developed the Merlin 1A and Kestrel engines for the Falcon 1. The Falcon 1 was the first liquid-fueled orbital rocket launched by a private company.
He also led the team that developed the Merlin 1C, Merlin 1D and MVac engines for the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, Draco thrusters for the Dragon spacecraft which was the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
He transitioned to engine development of the Space Propulsion Engineering team in 2014 before becoming Propulsion CTO in 2016 on a part-time basis. Earlier this year, he became a senior advisor again on a part-time basis. He is widely acknowledged as the world’s best minds on spacecraft propulsion and holds several US patents for propulsion technology.