How Tom Mueller went from building rockets in a garage to working with Elon Musk at SpaceX

Tom Mueller is one of the founding members and the chief technology officer of propulsion at SpaceX, the company that aims to colonize Mars. He has been working with Elon Musk, the visionary billionaire and CEO of SpaceX, for almost 20 years. But how did he get there? Here is his story of passion, perseverance, and innovation.

From Idaho to Los Angeles: Mueller’s early interest in rocketry

Tom Mueller grew up in a small town in Idaho, where he developed a fascination with science fiction and rocketry. He started building rockets when he was 14 years old, using materials like PVC pipes, sugar, and potassium nitrate. He also spent his summers working as a lumberjack with his father, which gave him a hands-on experience with machines and tools.

How Tom Mueller went from building rockets in a garage to working with Elon Musk at SpaceX
How Tom Mueller went from building rockets in a garage to working with Elon Musk at SpaceX

Mueller studied mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho and moved to Los Angeles after graduating. He got a job at TRW, an aerospace company, where he worked on various projects involving aircraft engines, satellites, and missiles. He also joined the Reaction Research Society, America’s oldest amateur rocketry club, where he met other enthusiasts who shared his passion.

Meeting Elon Musk and co-founding SpaceX

In January 2002, Mueller was working on a homemade rocket in a garage with some friends when he received a phone call from Elon Musk. Musk had just sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion and was looking for someone who could help him build rockets for his new venture, SpaceX. He had heard about Mueller’s reputation as a rocket engineer and wanted to meet him.

The following weekend, Mueller met Musk at his house in Bel Air. They watched the Super Bowl on TV, but they were more interested in talking about rockets. They sketched out plans for the first SpaceX rocket, which would later become the Falcon 1. Along with Chris Thompson, another TRW employee, they founded SpaceX as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation in May 2002.

Mueller became the head of propulsion at SpaceX, responsible for designing and developing the engines that would power the rockets. He was also one of the first employees of the company, which started with only a handful of people in a warehouse in El Segundo.

Working with Elon Musk and overcoming challenges

Working with Elon Musk was not easy, according to Mueller. Musk was a demanding boss who had high expectations and aggressive schedules. He also had a learn-by-failing mantra that encouraged experimentation and innovation. Mueller said he learned never to tell Musk no, but rather to say he would try and then explain why if it didn’t work out.

Mueller also faced many technical challenges at SpaceX. He had to create engines that were reliable, reusable, and affordable. He had to deal with failures, explosions, and setbacks. He had to constantly improve and innovate the engines to meet Musk’s vision of sending humans to Mars.

Some of Mueller’s achievements at SpaceX include:

  • Developing the Merlin engine, which powers the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets
  • Developing the Kestrel engine, which powered the second stage of the Falcon 1 rocket
  • Developing the Draco thrusters, which control the Dragon spacecraft
  • Developing the SuperDraco thrusters, which provide launch escape and landing capabilities for the Crew Dragon spacecraft
  • Developing the Raptor engine, which powers the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles

Leaving SpaceX and starting Impulse Space

In November 2020, Mueller announced his retirement from SpaceX on Twitter. He thanked Musk for giving him the opportunity to work on rockets and said he was proud of what they had accomplished together. Musk replied with appreciation and said Mueller was still an advisor to SpaceX.

Mueller is now running his own company, Impulse Space, which he founded in 2018. Impulse Space is developing a reusable launch vehicle called Impulse One that aims to provide low-cost access to orbit for small satellites. Mueller said he wants to compete with SpaceX and other companies in the space industry.

Mueller is also involved in other projects related to space exploration and education. He is a board member of Explore Mars, a non-profit organization that promotes human exploration of Mars. He is also a mentor for students who participate in the Base 11 Space Challenge, a competition that challenges teams to design, build, and launch a liquid-fueled rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers.

Mueller is one of the pioneers of the new space era. He has been instrumental in making SpaceX one of the most successful and innovative companies in the world. He has also inspired many people to pursue their dreams of reaching for the stars.

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