Tom Mueller: From Idaho Logger To Space Explorer

Top Photo: Tom Mueller, in the 1980s, in Idaho. Photo courtesy Tom Mueller

KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Tom Mueller, Vice President of Propulsion Development for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX:



"I was born in St. Maries, Idaho. It's a tiny little logging community with a population of about 2,500 people.

"Did you ever see the movie, October Sky? It's about the NASA rocket scientist, Homer Hickham. He grew up in West Virginia and his dad was a coal miner. Basically, if you take that story and change mining to logging, it's the story of my life.

"Hickham's dad was a hard-working miner and he wanted his son to be a miner. Instead the son went off to be an engineer.

"My dad was a hard-working log truck driver and he wanted me to be a logger. And instead -- I went off to be an engineer.

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"October Sky is an anagram for, Rocket Boys, the title of the book that the movie's based upon. In both, the kid Hickham went to the National Science Fair, met Wernher von Braun there, and it was a rocket project that got him there.

"¨"That same science fair is how I first came to California and knew right away I would come back and live here.

"When I was a kid back in St. Maries, I used to build and fly little Estes rockets. I'd buy them at the local hobby shop. I made dozens of those things -- I had them hanging above my bed and on the shelves around my bed. Of course they didn't last long because I'd always lose them or crash them or blow them up or something.

"My junior high and high school had a pretty strong science fair program. In junior high, my science fair project was to fly an Estes rocket with crickets in it to see what the affects of acceleration were on crickets. The parachute failed and the rapid deceleration when they hit the ground killed them.

"Next, I took my dad's oxy-acetylene welder and I made a rocket engine out of it. I injected water into it to see what affect doing that had on its performance. That's kind of a crazy thing -- adding water cuts the performance, really, but it does give you more thrust.

"I did some simple measurements. The first time I ran it, the engine burned a hole right through the side of the chamber. So I ended up putting the thing in a coffee can full of water to water-cool it. That way I could run it steady state and get the data.

"This got me through the local and on to the regional round of the science fair. The regionals were held in Spokane, Washington. I finished second or third and advanced to the finals, which were held in Anaheim, at the Convention Center. Going to Anaheim was the first time I'd ever really been out of the state -- Spokane didn't count, it's so close to St. Maries.

Tom Mueller, posing with the Merlin rocket engines at SpaceX's Hawthorne headquarters. Photo by Roger Gilbertson. Photo courtesy Tom Mueller.
Tom Mueller, posing with the Merlin rocket engines at SpaceX's Hawthorne headquarters. Photo by Roger Gilbertson. Photo courtesy Tom Mueller.

"This was also the first time I had ever been on an airplane. We flew into L.A. -- I was with my science teacher and some other really nerdy kids from the Northwest. I remember an hour or so bus trip from the airport to Anaheim. It seemed to me like we never left the city. My reaction was like, 'This never ends!' I counted something like ten lanes on the highway -- going one way. To me, the big city was Spokane, where there is, what, maybe four lanes?

"I didn't come close to winning the science finals. I got beat really bad. But there were robots and stuff that seemed like the other kids' JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] fathers had built. You know, there's no way the kid did that. At least I had done my project myself.



"I came from a lower-middle class family. I couldn't afford to go to any big school. I went to the University of Idaho because it was seventy miles away and in-state tuition was affordable.

"I put myself through school. I spent four summers as a logger, sawing in the woods and getting logs on a line machine -- so I definitely learned what hard work was. And it was great, because I mostly paid my own way. I didn't have to get too many student loans because I made good money working.

"But it was such hard, backbreaking work and really dangerous. I knew that I did not want to do that for the rest of my left. Because that was the alternative - I either get through college and become an engineer or I'm going to become a logger like the rest of my family.

"That was very, very motivating. I'd be out there in the bugs and the sticks working and sweating all summer. And I'd just think about, when I get back to school, I'm going to study so hard.

"[Idaho] was actually a very good engineering school; I got a really good base there. The nice thing about the school that you didn't see in a lot of other places was that they had a lot of hands-on, vocational type programs. This meant that I could go use the lathe or the milling machine in the shop and whatever other equipment that I needed to build projects with my own hands.

"As a kid, I was always helping my dad work on his log truck, using the welders and other tools. I think that hands-on upbringing really gave me the intuition of what would work and what wouldn't, and that's why I was pretty good at developing rocket engines.

"You know, I like machines. I like high-energy, fast and dangerous. I've always liked motorcycles. I like fast cars. Rockets were the most appealing things to me because they are the most high-energy mechanical devices that you can do.

"After college, I had a couple of job offers up in Idaho and in Oregon for non-rocket stuff. And I just said, 'I'm not going to go work on disk drives for Hewlett-Packard in Boise.' I refused them. I just packed up and said, 'I'm going to go to California to get a rocket job.' My dad looked at me like I was crazy. He said, 'You have a job offer, what are you doing?' I said, 'I'm going to do this.'

"I moved to California. I was already married to my current wife -- we got married when I was a junior in college. We came out and stayed with her mother in North Hollywood. It took me the longest time to get an interview, but then I went to a job fair and I got three of them. They each led to job offers and I accepted one of them.

"I just loved Los Angeles, as soon as I moved here. I really did. Coming from Idaho, I just loved the palm trees and the ocean and the mountains. Not that there is anything wrong with Idaho either, except there is no aerospace industry there.

"I've been working at SpaceX coming up on ten years now. What we do is extremely difficult. Getting a rocket to work and getting it into space is one of the hardest things - that's why only governments have done it before.

"It was definitely not easy to crack that code and the rocket engines are probably the hardest part and that's what I've been responsible for. The highs are really high but the lows are pretty low, too. It is so exciting when we make good progress that it just motivates me to keep at it, working long hours and under high stress.

"I'm so glad that we started this company and where we're at. I really want this to work. We literally want to get the cost down to where the average person can afford to travel into space just like they can travel into any other country on an airline."

--Tom Mueller
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


SpaceX's Falcon 9 / Dragon unmanned mission to the International Space Station is scheduled to take place on May 19, 2012. Check their Twitter account for updates.

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