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St. Maries to Space

Space Pioneer Returns Home to Encourage Students to Pursue Dreams with Optimism, Self-Confidence

Article and photos by Megan Snodgrass, U of I Coeur d’Alene

Although his work is ground-breaking, what Tom Mueller ’85 actually does is connect one thing to another — tools and technology to the lower earth orbit, cargo to distant interplanetary destinations, people to space and students to their potential. 

Mueller, a renowned rocket engineer and pioneer in the space travel industry who grew up in rural North Idaho and earned his bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho, has spent his days since graduating from Moscow working toward those dreams. This February, he talked with U of I Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho College students about how even the stars aren’t the limit of a person’s potential. 

“I want to make sure that these kids have the opportunities that I almost missed,” Mueller said. “If it hadn’t been for my math teacher telling me, ‘Hey, you could be an engineer,’ I might have missed this opportunity and not pursued the dream that I really wanted.” 

The pursuit of that dream has resulted in a storied and successful career in the space frontier for Mueller, specifically in rocket propulsion development. After signing on as co-founder with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX, Mueller spent more than 18 years as propulsion chief technology officer for the revolutionary company, playing an important role in developing methods of space travel. 

Now he’s striking out on his own. 

I really want to help get the next level of activity in space going – manufacturing in space, habitats in space, a base on the moon. It all sort of feels like science fiction right now but we want to make it real. Tom Mueller '85, Impulse Space founder

Accessing Space

As SpaceX was launching Starship and establishing the Starlink satellite network using the propulsion technology he helped develop, Mueller set his sights on a new dream — his own company, now known as Impulse Space.

Since its inception in 2021, Impulse has developed and launched an orbital transfer vehicle they call Mira that can send payloads — such as cameras, radars and other equipment for the communications, defense and science industries — into lower earth orbit. Impulse sent its first Mira into space in November 2023 and regularly shuttles payloads into the nearest reaches of space.

Mueller and his company are now developing an in-space vehicle that can take payloads from the lower earth orbit to geostationary orbit, approximately 22,000 miles above Earth’s equator. This rocket, known as the Helios, is set to launch in 2026 and could travel potentially as far as Mars.

“I just realized SpaceX’s Starship is going to fly often, and it can take hundreds of tons to lower earth orbit every time it flies,” Mueller said. “My thought was there’s going to be a lot of cargo going to space, and it’s going to need to be moved around, kind of like a container ship comes into port. All those things that go on a container ship don’t want to stay in port; they want to go other places. What Impulse can do is provide the tractor trailer to move the specific cargo pieces to where they really want to go in space.”

As the space industry advances and as scientists look to the stars for resources, Mueller said the frontier of near-earth space is becoming less nebulous and more accessible.

“I really want to help get the next level of activity in space going — manufacturing in space, habitats in space, a base on the moon,” Mueller said. “It all sort of feels like science fiction right now, but we want to make it real. There’s just a whole bunch of startups all over the country and all over the world that are doing activity in space that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been considered.”

Tom Mueller poses with two campus leaders.
Tom Mueller, right, smiles with U of I Coeur d’Alene CEO Andrew Fields, left, and North Idaho College President Nick Swayne before his presentation to students on Feb. 23.

Set the Sights High

As a small-town kid who came from a family of loggers in St. Maries, Mueller said the value of belief and self-confidence is not lost upon him and is a lesson he wants to help students learn.

“Between high school and going into college, I was pretty unsure of myself,” Mueller said. “I didn’t know I had the capability of being a world-class rocket engineer, so looking back what I would love to have had would be the belief in myself and the optimism, which have been the main component of my success going forward. When I talk to students, they often ask, ‘What’s the main secret to success?’ and I think it’s just optimism. If you think you can do it, you can do it. You just gotta overcome your own self to do things.”

That was a message that Mueller delivered to a packed lecture hall of STEM students from U of I Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho College and a handful of community members at the NIC campus in February.

Chris Sanchez, an NIC student who plans to transfer to the College of Engineering’s electrical engineering program in Moscow in Fall 2024, said the local background and connection makes big goals and dreams like Mueller’s seem more tangible.

“I’ve heard of SpaceX before — it’s hard not to have heard of SpaceX — but to hear of somebody coming from our own backyard who was so involved from the jump was pretty incredible,” Sanchez said. “It’s also nice to hear those real-life stories of former students and people who paved the way so far. I’ve always loved — from an engineering standpoint — asking, ‘What can we do and how can we push that?’ This kind of technology is only going to get better from here.”

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