Remembering George Mueller: the man behind the moon landing

The space engineer's strong, decisive leadership made possible the first landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s. He died Monday at age 97 in his California home.

NASA
George Mueller, NASA associate administrator for manned space flight, as seen at the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. Mueller died on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 at age 97.

George Mueller, the first leader of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, died last week following a brief illness. The ambitious engineer was responsible for heading the first moon landing as associate administrator for the space agency’s Office of Manned Space Flight.

Dr. Mueller served in this position from 1963 through 1969, during which he radically changed the infrastructure of NASA programs and established an ambitious set of goals. He supervised NASA’s three spaceflight centers – Marshall Space Flight Center, the Manned Spacecraft Center that’s now the Johnson Space Center, and the Kennedy Space Center – under a singular management system and oversaw Gemini, the early stages of Skylab, and other future programs in addition to Apollo. His decisive leadership made reaching the moon by the late 60s possible, his biggest legacy.

Achieving the latter was not easy. When he took the helm of the manned space program, Mueller found the existing plans to reach the moon were not feasible. So when Mueller took office in 1963, he overhauled the management system and standardized an “all-up” testing method. At the time, the traditional approach was to test every stage of the Saturn rocket before working on the next, which Mueller argued was inefficient and a waste of time.

"We were bringing everything together as rapidly as we could and in a sequence that would get them all together at the same time. So it didn't make much sense to fly the first stage and then fly it with the second stage, or fly the second stage separately, which was also proposed," said Mueller in a 1998 NASA interview. "If you lost a vehicle, you were likely to lose it at any stage so you might as well go as far as you can and find out where the problems are."

If he had not advocated for such a stark departure from the norm, the Apollo Program might not have met President Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon by the tail end of the 60s.

The engineer is also played a role in designing the first US space station and supported a reusable space transportation system that would later become the first space shuttle.  

Born in St. Louis, Mo., on July 16, 1918, Mueller studied as an electrical engineer at Missouri School of Mines and Purdue University. He completed his PhD in physics while teaching at Ohio State University. Right before NASA hired him, he was the vice president of research and development for Space Technology Laboratories.

He won the the National Medal of Science in 1970 and received the National Space Trophy in 2002, along of a handful of other awards and honors in the space industry.

Mueller is survived by his wife Darla, his son, three daughters, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

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