BOISE — Twenty years ago, a tech millionaire with space travel ambitions approached an engineer from a small North Idaho town to craft an engine for a privately funded rocket launch.
“At the time, conventional wisdom was countries do that, big companies funded by countries do that,” said Tom Mueller, who in 2002 joined SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company. “No individual or small private company had ever developed a pump-fed liquid rocket engine. It was kind of scary.”
The engine Mueller would design, as an executive leading SpaceX propulsion projects, is the Merlin. It powered Falcon 1, the first privately-developed liquid engine spacecraft to orbit Earth, and Falcon 9, the first reusable orbital rocket, which revolutionized space travel, making it more affordable and reliable.
After more than three decades designing world-renowned rocket engines, Mueller next month will be inducted into the Idaho Technology Council Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Barbara Morgan, the McCall teacher and astronaut; Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer who made Idaho his home; and Ray Smelek, the engineer credited with bringing Hewlett-Packard to Boise, among other famed scientists and entrepreneurs with ties to the Gem State.
Mueller is one of two inductees this year. He’s joined by Jack Hand, former CEO and Chairman of POWER Engineers, a Meridian-based consulting engineering firm.
“Our inductees represent how Idaho innovators have made a global impact,” said Jay Larsen, founder and president of the Idaho Technology Council, in a news release. “Jack’s leadership helped POWER Engineers leverage its core competencies to serve millions of customers and Tom’s rocket designs paved the way for private companies to explore space. Their legacy makes them deserving additions to the Hall of Fame.”
As a child, Mueller played with model rockets at his home in St. Maries, a picturesque logging town on the St. Joe River. A strong math student who planned to be an aircraft mechanic, Mueller credits his early ambitions to a high school teacher who one day asked, “Do you want to be the guy that fixes the plane or the guy that designs the plane?”
“He explained to me, engineers use mathematics to design things,” Mueller said. “I was really intrigued, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.’”
Mueller went on to the University of Idaho, where he studied mechanical engineering. Then he moved to California, attained a master’s degree and was hired by TRW, an aerospace and automotive company.
By the time Musk came calling, Mueller had been a lead engineer of TRW’s TR-106 engine, one of the most powerful rocket engines ever constructed. Mueller also designed amateur rockets in his free time. He signed on to work at SpaceX in April 2002, becoming the company’s first employee.
While Musk’s ultimate goal is interplanetary space travel, his company’s initial, rather “daunting,” task was to get a spacecraft to orbit, without the funding and resources of governments, which have historically led the way in developing spacecraft and space technology, from rockets to satellites.
After several years of prototype testing — with some failures along the way — SpaceX successfully launched Falcon 1 in 2008. Seven years later, Falcon 9 made its first successful landing. Mueller said landing a rocket that reenters Earth’s atmosphere at the same speed it left seems “almost impossible.” But “the physics are there.”
“It’s amazing to see, but it’s just science, man,” he said. “It just works.”
Today, SpaceX has grown from about 150 employees to nearly 10,000. The Merlin engine is powering rockets that carry cargo, and even people, to space. This year, Falcon 9, carrying a batch of satellites, completed its 100th successful launch in a row.
That reliability has helped widen access to space and created new demands, one of which Mueller hopes to fulfill with his new company, Impulse Space Propulsion. The company will build and operate orbital transfer vehicles, or “tug boats for space.”
They’re necessary because satellites often don’t have propulsion capabilities. So wherever in-orbit satellites are dropped, that’s usually where they will stay. Space tugs, powered by liquid-rocket engines, can pull satellites up or down, side to side.
“You have a lot of stuff in space and it needs to be moved around,” Mueller said. “I think the next killer application is these in-space orbital transfer vehicles. I want to be able to move things around in space, efficiently and (at a) very low cost.”
While Impulse Space Propulsion will be based in Southern California, Mueller hopes to one day build a testing site in Idaho. And he hopes his induction into Idaho Technology Council Hall of Fame will inspire more Idaho rocket scientists.
“Hopefully this induction into the hall of fame will help get more kids to not fall through the cracks, like I could’ve,” he said. “I could have very easily been a logger.”
While there’s nothing wrong with being a logger, that would’ve been a waste of his particular talents, Mueller said.
“If you’re good at math and science, make it happen,” he said.
Mueller as well as Hand — whom the Idaho Press will profile in a later issue — will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 21 at the Boise Centre.