A&S Interview: George Mueller
One of the guiding geniuses behind the Apollo program
Dr. George Mueller headed NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs, and kicked off the Skylab and space shuttle programs. His management practices are widely credited with keeping the space agency on track to achieve a lunar landing before the end of the 1960s. He left NASA in 1969 to work in the private sector, and has received many prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science and three NASA Distinguished Service Medals. He is this year's recipient of the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for lifetime achievement. Mueller spoke with Associate Editor Mike Klesius in January 2011.
Air & Space: As NASA added thousands of employees each year during the 1960s, you periodically had to reorganize and streamline the space agency. Was the management success of Apollo as big as the technological one?
Mueller: I would say that the management challenges were certainly as great as the technical challenges, although both were rather large. And as you mention, thousands of employees. Most of those were not at NASA. And one of the real challenges, of course, was trying to get them all working on the same program at the same time. That was why I organized it the way I did at the beginning of the program.
You know this is the set up of five boxes at headquarters and each of the centers and each of the major contractors, so that we all had a communication in depth and in parallel, so that we didn’t lose things in the process. I thought [it worked] and I think that as people got used to the feeling of it, they appreciated it. And that really was a fallout from the ballistic missile program, while so often these other disciplines were not really followed at the beginning of the program, and by the time you got to the end, boy, you had a really major problem of catching up.
A & S: Your decision to pursue “all-up testing” on the Saturn V—flying live rather than dummy stages each time—was arguably the most crucial factor in keeping the program on schedule. What gave you the confidence to push that idea, even with Werner von Braun’s initial resistance?
Mueller: Well, one thing that gave me the confidence is that there wasn’t any other way we were going to get the program done on the schedule that we had. The other thing though was the experience on the ballistic missile program where, if you do stage by stage testing, you have to design a new vehicle each time you add a new stage to it. That’s not very productive in terms of the time it takes. And also if you lose one of the stages—you’ll lose one sometime in the course of the operations anyhow—so you have at least a chance of getting all the data you need from the first launch rather than having to do three or four or five launches to get it.
A & S: Do you recall a moment or conversation when you convinced von Braun about the necessity of all-up testing?
Mueller: We had a regular monthly meeting with the centers, and it was at one of those after, oh, three or four months into the program, in 1963. We had a meeting where we were discussing this thing [all-up testing.] Bob Seamans [then NASA’s associate administrator] was there, and so von Braun’s people tried to convince Bob that all-up testing was a foolish thing to do, and Bob, bless his soul, listened to them, heard all they had to say, and then said, “You better talk to George about it.” So that was probably the most vocal opposition that we ran into. I had an ally in Bob. That was good, because he was the lead technical guy on Webb’s staff.
A & S: Were you comfortable with the decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon after the Saturn V had flown only twice, and unmanned?
Mueller: It wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been comfortable. I spent about four months that summer looking at every possible way that it could fail, and convinced myself that it wasn’t going to fail. So we went forward with it.
A & S: Could that that sort of bold decision happen at NASA today?
Mueller: I don’t believe it would be possible, from what I know of the situation at NASA. We have too many people who believe in absolute safety, and there is no such thing. And unfortunately, if you designed your program to be absolutely safe, you’d also be sure you’d absolutely never fly. So at that time we were willing to take a reasonable risk, but not an unreasonable risk. If we could figure out a way for it to fail that we couldn’t fix, we wouldn’t go.
A & S: Were there ever times in the 1960s when you lay awake at night wondering if NASA could really make the moon landing happen?
Mueller: No, I never had a real doubt that we could. The only time I really worried about it was probably around the time of the Apollo 1 fire. And that wasn’t because I thought we had a technical problem, but I thought we could have a political problem that would keep us from doing it. It was a national worst doubt too.
A & S: You’ve been called the “Father of the Space Shuttle.” What are you feeling as you watch the end of the program approaching?
Mueller: Well I’m sorry to see it ending, and particularly because we don’t have a follow-on that is capable of doing the same work. And although there’s a lot of discussion about it, and has been for some time, the fact of the matter is that keeping the shuttle flying until you have something new is going to be the least expensive and safest way of going forward. That’s where I disagree with Mike Griffin in that sense.
A & S: After the loss of Columbia eight years ago, what were your thoughts, going forward, about the shuttle program?
Mueller: I was surprised and astonished, as everyone else was, that a piece of foam could break the tiles on the shuttle wing. That’s something we had not really considered as being possible. But we learned otherwise. And that’s probably characteristic of every one of the problems we’ve had in the program, where we haven’t done sufficient testing to really understand all of the ways that things can fail. One thing I’ve learned from the Apollo program is that it’s hard to do enough testing of all the pieces to be sure you really understand what they’re capable of doing, and what they should do.
A & S: Does NASA ask you for advice these days?
Mueller: Not really. They haven’t asked me for advice for some while. Ever since I took the opportunity of participating in the Kistler Aerospace vehicle.
A & S: Ares 1-x launched in 2009 with a dummy upper stage. Would you have argued for an all-up flight?
Mueller: Well I surely would have. And I think they would have too if they’d had enough money to do it. But they of course hadn’t developed the other stages, which is a failure in its own right. If you’re going to build a vehicle, you better be sure you understand what the total vehicle is before you start testing. I wasn’t directly involved in the Ares program, so I really don’t know what the real constraints were. But I think that NASA has been in a position of being funded for its own uses but not funded for producing anything. You need to have enough money to develop the things that you want to fly, or else you can’t do it.
A & S: Have you supported Constellation? Do you want to see humans back on the moon?
Mueller: I thought that was the correct way to go forward. You know, we only just touched down on the moon. We haven’t really explored all of the aspects of the moon that could be used to keep a colony going on the moon. It was clear from the beginning that we ought to explore the poles because that’s where water would be if there were any water on the moon. Water is the key component of all of our activities. We’re primarily water based as a species. In a real sense, in our exploration, we ought to start with the identification of the resources to go forward, using the native resources available in order to build a sound and continuing program. It’s interesting when you think about it, when you think of the work being done at the South Pole at Antarctica, it started out with a two-man journey, and has now built into an outpost of fair complexity over a period of years. And that’s the kind of exploration we need in our neighboring bodies so that we can really understand this solar system that we’re born of.
A & S: Skylab was another of your huge contributions, and a major success. Was Skylab useful in today’s era of the International Space Station? For example, was there something that happened on Skylab that prevented certain mistakes that might have been made today?
Mueller: Well, that’s a complex question to answer. I think that Skylab really was a major step forward. I think it probably was a better space station than the ISS, because it had one thing in its favor: that was its size. It was a place where one could live for considerable periods of time and have a relatively normal lifestyle. In that sense, we’ve never managed to duplicate the capabilities of Skylab. On the other hand, the joint activities on the ISS have been a tremendous step forward in terms of bringing the various groups around the world together on a major project. So in that sense it has been a resounding success. And if the Saturn V had kept flying, the ISS would be a much better space station.
A & S: Did we walk away too early from Skylab and the Saturn V?
Mueller: I really think it was a great loss, just as walking away from the shuttle will be a great loss.
A & S: Having headed up Kistler Aerospace, what are your thoughts about commercial rockets to ferry cargo and people to and from the ISS?
Mueller: It would be a great idea, but I think that really the fundamental reason that Kistler failed was because there wasn’t a clear commitment on the part of any customer to use it. Until you have a commitment to use a vehicle of that sort, or someone with enough money to build it, you can’t really get enough money to build it. SpaceX, I think, has managed to convince Congress at least that it is worthwhile funding, so it has been getting funding for carrying forward the program. Where, for one reason or another, Kistler failed to.
A & S: You just said SpaceX has convinced Congress. Have they convinced you?
Mueller: SpaceX is a step backward. It’s building an expendable vehicle. Until we can get the cost of getting into space down by using reusable vehicles, we’re never going to get free access to space. And that’s just a fundamental problem that I recognized at the time of Apollo, when we started the shuttle program. But also the shuttle is a good example of how you failed to do what you need to do. In that case, they made a partially reusable vehicle. And partial reusability has most of the difficulties of both the expendables and the reusables. So it is not a very constructive way to go forward. And that was back when people asked my advice occasionally. And I suggested that the shuttle should be fully reusable.
A & S: In light of SpaceX’s two orbital successes, do you think they’re on the way to fulfilling the business case for a commercial space industry?
Mueller: Well it’s hard to tell. I don’t think that whatever they are doing, they are going to get the cost of transportation into space down to the point where it should be for a vigorous space program. We looked at low-cost expendable vehicles from about 1958 on, so that’s not a new idea. And its fundamental problem is that you throw the vehicle away every time you fly. There’s no way to get the cost down when you do that.
A & S: Actually, Elon Musk has said he wants to do everything he can to make Falcon 9 reusable. Obviously, so far, he hasn’t been able to accomplish that. Do you think there’s any chance he will accomplish it?
Mueller: You know, I hope he does. But I doubt if he can manage to accomplish that from where he is today. I think he’s got another generation to go through.
A & S: If offered a free orbital flight on Falcon 9, would you take it?
Mueller: No, I’m afraid not. For one thing I’m too old. But for another thing, I really enjoy living. And that’s a risk I wouldn’t want to take.
A & S: In a scenario where you were a 30-year-old pilot, how many flights would you like to see it take before you climbed on?
Mueller: Well, if I were a thirty-year-old pilot I’d probably have a completely different view of life, and might even climb on if I thought there was a positive chance of success. But being a reasonably conservative guy, I’d want to understand the design better than I do before I committed to doing anything on it.
A & S: What ideas or technologies get you most excited about space exploration today?
Mueller: Well, I’ve been for years advocating where I could the development of a nuclear rocket for interplanetary travel. We had the NERVA rocket pretty well developed and then gave it up in favor of solving the problems of New York City. And that turned out to be impossible. As a result NERVA never really got past the experimental stage. But if you really want to transfer people and things from low Earth orbit to orbit around other planets, you need something like a nuclear rocket. That’s one of the developments I felt we should have been putting money in for years. Clearly it’s much more feasible than a fusion rocket. Although, I must say, if you could develop a fusion rocket, that would be the way to go forward. More efficient, but also it has greater capability in terms of pounds of cargo per pound of fuel. In the long run, that’s what determines the cost effectiveness of inter-orbital transfer. Incidentally, I firmly believe that one ought to develop a transportation system with transportation nodes in low orbit around every planet, so that you go from one orbital station to another orbital station, and then down to the surface. That’s the physics that gives you the most bang for your buck.