Tom Mueller’s SpaceX Debrief
SpaceX's historic flight to the International Space Station lights up the nighttime sky on May 22.
Published: July 12, 2012
When the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station in May, SpaceX accomplished a mission previously carried out by governments. The successful flight has implications for the future of space exploration and business. Company founder Elon Musk sees it as one step toward a bigger goal of affordable space travel. In our fall 2011 issue, we conducted a pre-flight interview with Tom Mueller M.S. ’92, SpaceX vice president of propulsion development who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Loyola Marymount University. We asked Mueller for a post-mission debriefing. He was interviewed via email by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
Was there any one part of the mission that was especially rewarding to you?
Yes, the moment when the astronauts captured the Dragon capsule with the robotic arm. I was surprised at how emotional that moment was when we had completed the most important and demanding part of the mission.
Was there a moment during the mission when you saw something that was simply visually beautiful or breathtaking, an image that will live in your mind’s eye for the rest of your life?
After the astronauts captured the Dragon capsule with Canadarm2, a huge image of the Dragon capsule in the sunrise was projected on the wall of SpaceX Mission Control. It was surreal. After all the years of working to get there, and all the artists’ images of Dragon at the station that I had seen, it was cool to see that actual, live image. That was when it really began to hit home what we had accomplished.
Before the successful launch on May 22, there was an aborted launch on May 19. How does the launch team deal psychologically with an aborted launch on the pad?
Usually we are so focused on finding what went wrong and figuring out how to fix it that there is little consideration of our emotional state. We just think about how we can get past an abort quickly. In this case the aborts caught a real problem, so it was great that our system worked.
Do you feel that experiencing two consecutive successful missions to the space station would be more important than accomplishing the first one?
No, I think the first one has so many unknowns that it certainly has the highest risk. We conduct many simulations and test as much as we can, but until you fly a real mission you just don’t know what you will encounter or how the different systems are going to interact. That means there are always a few surprises you expect to uncover on the first mission. Luckily the things we did encounter did not prevent the mission from being a success. On the second trip to ISS, I expect less uncertainty.
Is the post-mission debriefing just as intense as the pre-launch planning?
It is intense, but in a different way. Before launch, there are worries about risks and failure scenarios, while after launch you are focused on finding out how everything performed compared to predictions and on looking for anomalies. I find it quite rewarding to see how close the systems performed compared to preflight predictions.
From launch to splashdown, how many hours of sleep did you get?
Considering that most of the key phases of the mission happened in the wee hours of the morning, I slept quite well.
(Photo courtesy of SpaceX Corp.)