George Mueller, the NASA administrator who helped steer the agency during the 1960s and was known as the ‘father of the space shuttle’, died earlier this week at the age of 97.
Mueller joined NASA in 1963 as the Associate Administrator of the NASA Office of Manned Space Flight, where he oversaw the planning and testing of the of the hardware and spaceflights that eventually saw the first lunar landings.
Appointed by NASA head James E. Webb, Mueller insisted on a major reorganization of the agency as a condition of his hiring, and formed the Office of Manned Spaceflight in 1963. Entering the position, he found that the agency had little in the way of tracking the costs of the program. With Apollo behind schedule and becoming increasingly expensive, he was instrumental in helping to organize and coordinate the project, while helping to streamline costs. Some of his efforts included the ‘all up’ policy of testing entire rockets at once, which put him in conflict with some of the agency’s leading scientists, such as Werner von Braun.
When Mueller stepped down from his role in 1969, he helped to establish NASA’s future by advocating for follow on projects such Skylab and a reusable spacecraft which would later be known as the Space Shuttle.
Speaking to NASA in an oral history, Mueller noted that it was establishing what came after Apollo that he was the most proud of:
Getting to the Moon on time. What else? [Laughter] No, actually, probably even a greater thing was putting in place a follow-on program that would begin to exploit what we’d accomplished in Apollo. The real problem with Apollo was that it was a one-time event, essentially, and it wasn’t built to carry on a lunar exploration program, for example. But we did put in place the program that exploited what was left of the Apollo thing, Skylab and those programs, and then laid the groundwork for what were the first two steps in our long-range plan, which we’re now implementing. I think we lost a vision, and Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin is beginning to bring the vision back, which is great.
It’s an unsung role, but while engineers, pilots and scientists get most of the attention for getting to the moon, the organizational and administrative infrastructure that had been established was as critical to the success of the manned spaceflight programs, and Mueller was critical to the organizational framework of the body that got us to the moon.
Without him, Neil Armstrong would have never stepped on the moon.
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