Tom Mueller M.S. ’92, an alumnus known for his innovative vision in aerospace propulsion, donated $5 million to LMU this past summer to establish the Mueller Aerospace Propulsion Laboratory in the LMU Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering.
Mueller, who co-founded SpaceX and was vice president for propulsion and development, launched ImpulseSpace, a space transportation company, in El Segundo, in July 2022. ImpulseSpace also has announced plans to land the first private mission on Mars.
The aerospace propulsion laboratory will be part of the Engineering Innovation Complex, which is currently in planning. The Mueller lab will be used by undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences and will offer specialized training in aerospace propulsion. The lab also will be a hub for partnerships with nearby businesses and corporations operating in the aerospace industry.
The lab’s impact will be felt across Seaver College, says Dean Tina Choe. “The propulsion lab will draw on expertise in the Seaver College, in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and other fields,” she explains. “In that sense, the Mueller Aerospace Propulsion Lab will expand and increase our reach.”
Space-based transportation and other services will be at the heart of the space economy of the future. As the space economy takes shape, its impact may be as significant as the communications technology revolution of the 1990s, she says. And its impact across society may be just as wide, she adds. Interdisciplinary thinking will be essential.
“Tom Mueller understands the value of interdisciplinary education,” she explains. “His company has the goal of landing on Mars, an inherently interdisciplinary mission. He respects that we understand that students need to be multifaceted.”
While Mueller is an alumnus of the Seaver College, Southern California is well-populated with world-famous science institutions. Why invest in LMU?
“Tom has always been a person who takes risks in things that have potential,” Choe says. “He sees LMU as an institution with the right kind of support and one that with support like that can be a much bigger player in the aerospace world.”
When we interviewed Tom Mueller M.S. ’92 in 2011 (“Rocket Man,” LMU Magazine, Fall 2011), Mueller has busy developing reusable rockets for SpaceX, a company he co-founded. He was vice president for propulsion and development at the time. But he already was thinking beyond, to space travel to Mars.
Mueller pursued his master’s degree in science through the LMU Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering. He was drawn not only to the mechanical engineering program but also to LMU’s location at the heart of the aerospace industry of Southern California.
Today, the propulsion expert continues to look ahead. In September 2021, Mueller, no longer with SpaceX, launched ImpulseSpace, based in nearby El Segundo, California. His new company will provide in-space transportation and payload delivery services, including orbital transport of satellites to optimal orbits, in-orbit servicing and space debris deorbit.
Mueller says the space economy promises to be one of great potential. Space-based commerce already offers opportunities to communications and national defense industries. But Mueller sees chances to deal with resource depletion on Earth.
“As the cost of access to space decreases,” he says, “more commerce and manufacturing activities will happen in space. Eventually it will be much more efficient to use the materials that are already in space, like lunar or asteroid resources, than sending up material from Earth’s surface.”
This past summer, Mueller’s Mars aspirations took a big leap forward. ImpulseSpace teamed up with startup Relativity Space, based in Long Beach, and announced a plan to land the first private mission on Mars, perhaps as soon as 2024.
To support the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, contact Melissa Watkins, executive director of Development, at Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org; 310.338.3795.