Monday, April 22, 2024

Space: Tom Mueller's Frontier

Staff Writer | February 25, 2024 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Tom Mueller grew up in St. Maries, the son of a second-generation logger. 

He liked dirt bikes and sports cars and was a good big brother.

"He took care of me," Mike Mueller said, before adding, "he almost got us in trouble. He always got out of it."

Young Tom Mueller excelled at figuring things out. At creating. Building. He could take apart a broken mower, fix it and put it back together. He was fascinated by rockets and engines and interested in astronomy and cosmology. 

When he inherited his uncle's chemistry set, that led to more experiments, more testing the limits, more pushing the boundaries, more exploration.

In 1979, he attended an international science fair in Anaheim, Calif. His project was, "Can water injection increase rocket thrust?"

Not exactly a dinner conversation topic.

There were plenty of signs he didn't quite think and see things like everyone else. 

"I didn’t know my capabilities," the 1979 St. Maries High School graduate said. "I had no idea."

But no surprise, he figured it out.

"There's nothing I’d rather talk about than race cars and rockets," he said, smiling.

Mueller went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho’s College of Engineering before beginning a 35-year career in rocket engineering and development. 

Today, he is considered one of the world’s leading propulsion development and rocket engine designers. Mueller partnered with Elon Musk in 2002 to co-found Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, where he would spend 19 years. 

In 2021, he established Impulse Space, a pioneering space technology company. Headquartered in Redondo Beach, Calif., Impulse Space has about 90 full-time employees and has raised $75 million to date.

"Like SpaceX, we are extremely vertically integrated," Mueller said to about 260 people at the Hagadone Event Center on Friday during a Rotary Club of Coeur d'Alene luncheon.

He said they were fortunate enough to raise enough money "to build the machinery that builds the machines."

"That way we can control our quality and our schedule," Mueller said during a 40-minute talk.

Mueller also visited U of I and North Idaho College computer science students Friday, and toured U of I’s Center for Intelligent Industrial Robotics with U of I Coeur d’Alene students on NIC’s campus.   

U of I Professor of Mechanical Engineering Larry Stauffers said Mueller has continued to be engaged with his alma mater. He has visited U of I in years past, was inducted into the College of Engineering’s Academy of Engineers in 2017 and earned an honorary doctorate in engineering from U of I in 2018.   

“Tom is an accomplished engineer who has made incredible achievements in his career,” Stauffer said in a press release. “I am always impressed at how easily he talks with students and the way they respond to him. The story of his journey from your typical high school student in St. Maries to one of the most accomplished rocket engineers has inspired many students and professionals alike.” 

Mueller shared some of his thoughts Friday.

He expects the Earth's population to top out at about 10 billion. As demand and use of resources and energy grow, he said the planet will reach a point where it can't sustain quality of life.

"We're going to have to get resources from space and the only way we’re going to do that is to get access to space to be economically viable," Mueller said.

He said space today is a single digit of the world's economy, but that must increase to create a real space economy.

"Space is an excellent opportunity for growth," he said.

Mueller has big plans for Impulse Space.

"Here’s a very busy chart. That’s because there's a lot of things to do in space," he said, looking to a screen image that showed planets, rockets, space stations and satellites and the words, "Our Vision."

He sees his company doing "anything you want to do" in space. He cited landing on Mars, moving satellites, lunar transport services, deep space logistics and on-orbit refueling as some of the possibilities. 

"We want to be the go-to guys to move things around in space," Mueller said.

But it must be done efficiently and affordably.

"That’s what’s going to enable a true space economy," Mueller said.

During his talk, Mueller laughed often and tried to explain highly complex information in a way regular folks could understand. He also displayed a sense of humor.

"Are you an alien?" one audience member asked.

"No, but Elon might be," he responded as the crowd laughed.

Mueller offered some advice for those looking to work with companies like SpaceX and Impulse Space.

Attending a top university, scholastic achievements and having a degree from an Ivy League school isn't what they're after, because that primarily means you can study hard and focus, Mueller said. 

What they like to see is someone who has led a major project, created something from scratch or perhaps built a bigger model rocket.

"That’s what companies are looking for, people that are interested in doing things and do it," he said.

Mueller encouraged those interested in science and building things to follow that passion.

"That’s what the world needs is builders," he said 

But he also encouraged the next generation to pursue their dreams.

He said his older brother, David, wanted to hunt and fish for a living and eventually moved to Alaska, where he worked as a fishing guide and established an outdoors career. Not only did he love it, he excelled at it.

"Whatever you do, whatever you’re good at, do it well," Mueller said.

Doug Rupiper, Rotary Club of Coeur d'Alene president, said they were proud to have Mueller speak at their luncheon and share his story.

"He’s proven it doesn't matter where you grow up," Rupiper said. "He said it's about passion and about drive."

Mueller, who lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., returns home several times a year to be with family. His brother lives on the St. Joe River. 

He noticed there's not much snow this year, so snowmobiling opportunities have been limited.

"If we had more snow, I’d be up more often," Mueller said, laughing.

His heart remains in North Idaho.

"I love it," he said.

As much as he's accomplished on Earth, Mueller said he has more to do in space.

The possibilities, as far as Tom Mueller is concerned, are endless.

"You’re only as good as the last thing you've done,” he said.

    Tom Mueller's silhouette is outlined as he speaks to about 260 people at the Hagadone Event Center on Friday.
    Tom Mueller talks about his career during a presentation at the Hagadone Event Center on Friday.