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George E Mueller (1968)

George Mueller (born July 16, 1918[1]) was hailed as one of NASA's "most brilliant and fearless managers"[2]. He was Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Space Flight from September 1963 until December 1969. He was instrumental in the "All-up" philosophy of testing the Saturn V booster that accelerated a floundering Apollo program and ensured it would succeed in landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of 1969. Mueller (he pronounced it Miller) also played a key part in the design of Skylab[3] and championed the space shuttle's development.

Mueller is currently Chairman & Chief Vehicle Architect of Kistler Aerospace Corp.[4]


Early life and education

George Mueller was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 16, 1918. His mother came from Belleville, Illinois and had been a secretary, but she never worked after marriage. His father was an electrician who was superintendent of an electrical motor repair shop in St. Louis. Both parents spoke German, although Mueller never learned it.

He went to Benton School in St. Louis - until the 8th grade - then he and his parents moved to a larger house in the country called Bel Nor outside the city.

The young Mueller enjoyed reading science fiction and, helped by his grandfather, woodworking - although his first model ship capsized. When he was aged 11 or 12 Mueller also built and raced model aircraft - such as gliders and rubber band model airplanes. Always curious about how things worked, he also built radios. Interested in these activities the teenage Mueller wanted to be an aeronautical engineer but discovered that where he could go to school, the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) in Rolla, Missouri, there was no aeronautical engineering. They did have mechanical engineering so he plumped for this although finally found it discouraging, and switched over to electrical engineering.

Mueller assumed he would end up working in industry and so, in his senior year, went on a tour of various suitable companies. He applied to General Electric and Emerson but when he graduated in 1939 the economy took a downturn and he, like most of the class, had no job.

Luckily, after applying to several graduate schools he got an offer of a fellowship (funded by RCA) at Purdue. The fellowship was in a television project, Purdue was building a television transmitter for the campus, and it was the first of the kind that was using all vacuum tubes to produce the pictures. It was also the first using a CRT for display purposes. They still had mechanical disks for scanning but they were trying to develop an all-electronic approach.

Bell Labs

His tutor suggested he apply for a research job at Bell Labs which he got. After a year of getting established there he married Maude Rosenbaum who he'd met at Purdue. Mueller described himself as a bit of a loner but at Purdue he did form some fairly close long lasting friendships.

The work Mueller did at Bell Labs prevented him from being drafted into the military during World War 2. He initially researched Orthicon technology but later became heavily involved in radar technology. As the war progressed his group was given the task of building the first airborne radar for Bell. Ultimately, the radar from MIT was chosen instead but not until after Mueller was spectacularly sick whilst flight testing Bell Labs' radar. He then worked on magnetrons and came close to co-inventing the transistor if he and his co-workers had placed their contacts on a single crystal of zircon rather than working with multiple crystals. It was at Bell Labs that he got to know Dean Wooldridge.

PhD and Ramo-Wooldridge

Mueller increasingly believed that to move up in the hierarchy he would need a PhD, and he began working towards this goal on a part-time basis at Princeton University, getting up every morning at around 5 o'clock and driving to Princeton to take a couple of courses before driving back down to Holmdehl to work all day at Bell Labs. Luckily in 1946 a friend, Milt Boone, who knew a professor at The Ohio State University, encouraged Mueller to help set up a vacuum tube lab and run the communications group at Ohio State.

At Ohio State Mueller taught and did research, focusing his PhD thesis on dielectric antennas. Upon obtaining his doctorate in 1951, he became associate professor. Increasingly interested in the work that the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation was doing, he arranged a sabbatical in 1953 to them on the understanding he would be made a full professor on his return.

At Ramo-Wooldridge Mueller was a consultant. He got involved in the review of radar designs and the Bell Labs radar for the Titan rocket (which was originally radio-guided). Mueller was peripherally involved with some of the developments of the inertial systems and generally began to help out wherever there was a problem. He was tagged as a problem solver of the moment which turned out to be fun and kept him busy. Mueller admitted in 1987 that at this time he didn't know anything about missiles.

At this time Ramo-Wooldridge had just received a contract from General Bernard Schriever of the US Air Force. It was their first really large contract and they were trying to manage four programs all at once starting with a cadre of only 20 or 30 people.

After returning from his sabbatical year to Ohio Sate, Mueller taught but was also retained as a part-time consultant to R-W. In 1957 he joined Ramo-Wooldridge's STL as director of the Electronics Laboratories. This Laboratory soon merged with the mechanical group, and then Mueller became deputy of this larger organization. He was also program director for the Pioneer program and then took over as head of R&D [Research and Development]. Then STL was absorbed into what became TRW. While working on missile systems Mueller became convinced that all-up testing was essential as "you don't want to be testing piece-wise in space. You want to test the entire system because who knows which one's going to fail, and you'd better have it all together so that whatever fails, you have a reasonable chance of finding the real failure mode, not just the one you were looking for."[5]

NASA and the Apollo Program

George Mueller, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Charles W. Mathews, and Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips relax in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969.

Mueller became increasingly involved with NASA and the Apollo Program. NASA's administrator James Webb sounded Mueller out for a top job. Mueller would only agree if the agency was restructured and so over the next month he worked with Robert Seamans to restructure NASA which involved shifting three centers over to report to him directly, as well as a local group at Headquarters. Mueller accepted the job - although he took a substantial pay cut.

Encouraged by Webb, Mueller had already investigated OMSF. His first impression; "there wasn't any management system in existence". More seriously, Mueller found no means to determine and control hardware configuration which gave no way to determine costs or schedules. Mueller concluded he would have to "teach people what was involved in doing program control."[6]

In August 1963, Mueller invited each of NASA's field center directors to visit him and explained how his proposed changes would put Apollo back on schedule and solve problems with the Bureau of the Budget. With some directors he had little problem but he had issues with Wernher von Braun who gave "one of his impassioned speeches about how you can't change the basic organization of Marshall."[6] After some argument von Braun accepted Mueller's proposals and reorganised MSFC strengthening its capacity in running large projects.

Mueller's position was strengthened by Webb making the directors at MSC, MSFC and KSC report direct to OMFS. Mueller also reduced attendance at the MSF Management Council to just himself and the Center directors. Borrowing from the US Air Force Minuteman program, Mueller formed the Apollo Executive Group which consisted of himself and the presidents of Apollo's main contractors.

An intense moment during the SA-6 launch at the Firing Room. Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center is at center; to his left is George Mueller, Associate Director for Manned Space Flight; and far right is Eberhard Rees, Director for Research and Development at MSFC. The SA-6, the sixth flight of the Saturn 1 vehicle, launched a S-IV stage (a second stage) and an Apollo boilerplate spacecraft.

The biggest problem Mueller still faced was Apollo's slipping schedule and huge cost overruns. He had always thought the only way to resolve this, and achieve a lunar landing before 1970, was to reduce the number of test flights. Mueller wanted to use his "all-up testing" concept with each flight using the full number of live stages. This approach had been used successfully on the Titan II and Minuteman programs but violated von Braun's engineering concepts. The von Braun test plan called for the first live test to use the Saturn's first stage with dummy upper stages. If the first stage worked correctly then the first two stages would then be live with a dummy third stage and so on, with at least ten test flights before a manned version was put into low earth orbit.

The Saturn V program manager Arthur Rudolf cornered Mueller with scale models of Saturn and Minuteman. The Saturn dwarfed the Minuteman but Mueller replied, "So what?"

Eventually von Braun and the others were won over. As von Braun stated: "It sounded reckless, but George Mueller's reasoning was impeccable. Water ballast in lieu of a second and third stage would require much less tank volume than liquid-hydrogen-fuelled stages, so that a rocket tested with only a live first stage would be much shorter than the final configuration. Its aerodynamic shape and its body dynamics would thus not be representative. Filling the ballast tanks with liquid hydrogen? Fine, but then why not burn it as a bonus experiment? And so the arguments went on until George in the end prevailed."[7]

Mueller's concept of all up testing worked, the first two unmanned flights of the Saturn V were successful (the second less so), then the third Saturn V put Frank Borman's Apollo 8 crew in orbit round the Moon on Christmas 1968, and the sixth Saturn V carried Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 to the first lunar landing.

In an interview Mueller acknowledged what would have happened if all up testing had failed, "The whole Apollo program and my reputation would have gone down the drain".[8]

With this battle won, in November 1965, Mueller reorganised the Gemini and Apollo Program Offices, creating a five box structure at HQ and field center. This structure replicated Mueller's concept of system management and provided far better program overview. The cleverness of the idea was that inside these "GEM boxes" (named from his initials) managers and engineers communicated directly with their functional counterparts in NASA HQ bypassing all the usual chain of command and bureaucracy.

Mueller's GEM box idea worked but not until after several months of chaos at NASA HQ.

GEM Boxes

With another battle won, Mueller still found that he could not always find the right people with the right skills. Using his background in Air Force projects Mueller sought Webb's permission to bring in skilled Air Force managers. He proposed Minuteman program director General Samuel C. Phillips as program controller of OMSF. Webb agreed, and so did AFSC chief General Bernard Schriever but only on the condition that Phillips became Apollo Program Director. Phillips in turn agreed and brought with him 42 mid-grade air force officers and eventually 124 more junior officers.

Robert Seamans (the then NASA Deputy Administrator) stated that Mueller "didn’t sell; he dictated - and without his direction, Apollo would not have succeeded."[9]

Also well known were Mueller's Project Status Reviews often held on Sundays and in brutal detail. The presentations were nicknamed "“pasteurized" as the tired managers' ability to absorb the detail was waning, and the charts were merely "past your eyes."[9]

After the Apollo 1 fire, NASA Administrator James Webb became distrustful of Mueller, but commented. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn't fire him because he was manager of our successful Apollo project, and one of the ablest men in the world ... The last thing I wanted was to lose him, but I also had another desire, which was not to let his way of working create too many difficulties.”[10]

Apollo applications and Skylab

Even while Apollo was progressing Mueller and others were pushing for an aggressive post-Apollo program. He established the Apollo Applications Office in 1965. The Applications were extensive involving a manned lunar base, an earth-orbiting space station, Apollo telescope, the Grand Tour of the Outer Solar System, and the original "Voyager program" of Mars Lander probes.

Faced with Congressional disapproval and in-fighting within NASA the ambitious Apollo Applications Program was cut back time and time again until just Skylab remained.[11]

Father of the Space Shuttle?

Mueller is often credited as being the "Father of the Space Shuttle"[12]. Whether this is entirely true is debatable -- Scott Pace propounded the view that, in such a complex system with so many stakeholders, "everyone was a Shuttle designer."[13] What is beyond doubt is that Mueller played a key role in early Space Shuttle decisions and in championing the cause for a reusable space vehicle. Whilst perhaps not the 'Father' he has been accurately described by Professor John Logsdon as the 'Policy Father of the Space Shuttle'. [14]

Mueller held a one-day symposium (held at NASA headquarters) in December 1967 to which 80 people from the Air Force, NASA and industry were invited to discuss low cost space flight and shuttle-like designs. The designs ranged from 'simple' concepts like Martin Marietta's six person reusable craft similar to the Dyna-Soar (launched by a Titan III-M), to partially reusable concepts like Lockheed's Star Clipper or Tip Tank from McDonnell Douglas, to fully reusable two-stage vehicles like the one proposed by General Dynamics.

Following this symposium Mueller continued to champion a "space shuttle". Although he did not invent the term, he did make it his own. He was also a keen proponent of space stations and was well aware that the space shuttle was to shuttle to and from such a station.

While in London in August 1968, to receive an award from the British Interplanetary Society, he again trumpeted the cause of the shuttle, "...there is a real requirement for an efficient earth to orbit transportation system - an economical space shuttle". "I forecast that the next major thrust in space will be the development of an economical launch vehicle for shuttling between Earth and the installations, such as the orbiting space station that will soon be orbiting in space." He also stated, as many others would do later, that "The shuttle ideally would be able to operate in a mode similar to that of a large commercial air transports and be compatible with the environment of major airports".[15]

Mueller's optimism grew in 1968 and he chided Wernher von Braun (who had been cautiously promoting a cheap interim shuttle-type craft), "You'd be telling me that my Shuttle was in the future and you needed an interim system." Mueller was sure that the incoming president, Richard Nixon, would want to go "all out" and that "this may be the big program for Nixon".[16]

Whilst Nixon would eventually endorse the shuttle, Mueller was very wrong that the country, Congress or Nixon would go "all out" for a new expanded space exploration policy.

In 1987 Mueller had this to say about the shuttle, “It was clear to us at that time that we needed to have a joint program between the Air Force and NASA, and that that program ought to be aimed at providing low cost space transportation for all of our needs. It's just in my view unfortunate that we made the compromise, after I left NASA, in terms of a partially reusable vehicle, and all that that implies in terms of not only the cost of the throw-away parts but also the cost of the ground troops that have to process it and put it together and fly it every time. That combination--and ground support is a not insignificant part of a Shuttle cost--was a set of decisions that doomed low cost space transportation for that generation of vehicles.” [17]

Mueller's Working Style

Almost everyone who worked with Mueller on Apollo agreed he was technically brilliant and exceedingly capable. Even those who frequently disagreed with him like Christopher Kraft or George Low recognised his abilities. Whilst Mueller could be described as intellectually arrogant he was not an office tyrant, in fact, one of his colleagues, John Disher, describes working for him as a "piece of cake". Nor did he try to belittle others or shout them down. Whilst appearing affable and reasonably charming "with the epitome of politeness, but you know down deep he's just as hard as steel!".[18]

Interestingly, we get a rare glimpse inside the extremely rational, hard to know Mueller when he was asked what was his most memorable moment during the years of Apollo. It wasn't the first launch of the Saturn V, the Apollo 8 triumph or even the moon landing but a surprise birthday party that his staff organised for him after the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969.

Resignation from NASA

Mueller resigned from NASA on November 10, 1969 effective from December 10. Rumours had been circulating for a while that he wanted to return to private industry. The New York Times stated that 'informed sources' "alleged clashes with (Administrator) Thomas Paine over space priorities for '70s and disputes with subordinates; he has twice been passed over for deputy admr post".[19].

In an interview Mueller gives different reasons for leaving, "One is that the decision had been made to terminate the Apollo program, and that was a good time then to leave before, and let someone else take over for the next phase. From a practical point of view, I needed to go make some money so I could keep my family going. It was costly for us to join the Apollo program. My salary was half what I was making in industry when I went there, and it was just a strain to keep the family going and work going at the same time. So I went back to industry." [20].

Post NASA Career

Senior Vice President, General Dynamics Corporation, Falls Church, Virginia (1969- 1971)
System Development Corporation, Santa Monica, California
Chairman, President (1971-1980)
Chairman, Chief Executive Officer (1981-1983)
Burroughs Corporation
Senior Vice-President (1982-1983)
Consultant (1984 - date unknown)[21]

Kistler Aerospace (Rocketplane Kistler from 2006)
CEO 1995-2004
Chairman and Chief Vehicle Architect 2004[22]


  • Murray, C. and Cox, C.B. (2004). Apollo. Pages 151-162. South Mountain Books, Burkittsville, MD. ISBN 09760008-0-6 [1]
  • Heppenheimer, T.A. The Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972: History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 1. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-58834-014-7
  • Pace, Scott (1982) Engineering Design and Political Choice: the Space Shuttle 1969-1972, Thesis (M.S.), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1982


  1. ^ Astronautix biography
  2. ^ Bizony, Piers (5 October 2006). The Man Who Ran the Moon: James Webb, JFK and the Secret History of Project Apollo. Icon Books Ltd. ISBN 1560257512.  
  3. ^ Skylab Concept by George Mueller
  4. ^ Executive Team
  5. ^ Dr. George Mueller interview NASM Oral History Project
  6. ^ a b Johnson S B (2002), "The Secret of Apollo" Johns Hopkins university Press. ISBN 0-8018-6898-X
  7. ^ Apollo Expeditions to the Moon
  8. ^ SP-4223 "Before This Decade Is Out...", SP-4223, The NASA History Series.
  9. ^ a b Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions. Monographs in Aerospace History Number 37. NASA SP-2005-4537, Washington, D.C., 2005.
  10. ^ Mr. James E. Webb interview NASM Oral History Project
  11. ^ SP-4208 Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab
  12. ^ See for example George E Mueller, Father of the Space Shuttle Program, To Receive 2002 Rotary National Award for Space Achievement and many other references
  13. ^ Pace, Scott (1982) Engineering Design and Political Choice: the Space Shuttle 1969-1972, Thesis (M.S.), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1982
  14. ^ The Decision to Build the Shuttle, Aircraft Systems Engineering, MIT OpenCourseWare
  15. ^ Address by Dr George E Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the British Interplanetary Society, University College London, England, August 10, 1968, 7:00 pm
  16. ^ Heppenheimer, T.A. The Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972: History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 1. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-58834-014-7
  17. ^ NASM Oral History Project, MUELLER No 9
  18. ^ Murray, C. and Cox, C.B. (2004). Apollo. Pages 151-162. South Mountain Books, Burkittsville, MD. ISBN 09760008-0-6
  19. ^ New York Times, November 1, 1969, Saturday
  20. ^ SP-4223 "Before This Decade Is Out...", SP-4223, The NASA History Series.
  21. ^ Biographical Data Sheet
  22. ^ Executive Team Rocketplane Kistler

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