SpaceX’s CTO of Propulsion retired. Now he wants to go to Mars. – techcrunch

Tom Muller is a self-described Race Car Man. Upon retiring from his role as CTO of Propulsion at SpaceX in November 2020, he “mostly wanted to go racing and ride dirt bikes and travel,” he said in a recent interview. Mueller, who is 61, had a storied career behind him: While at SpaceX, he led the development of the Merlin rocket engine, which powers the Falcon 9 rocket, and the Draco engine that powers the Dragon spacecraft. provide.

Retirement planning was there – but the plans didn’t always work out as intended.

As soon as he retired, Mueller, widely considered one of the leading experts in live propulsion today, began sketching out a smaller thruster. That thruster is now named “Rigel” after the blue supergiant in the constellation Orion. It has become the cornerstone of Mueller’s new startup, Impulse SpaceWhich he established in September 2021. With the new venture, Mueller wants Impulse to be the go-to choice for cost-effective, efficient in-space transportation.

“It was just going to be for fun and not too serious, but then some ex-SpaceX guys started talking [to me] And wanted to help and suddenly it became real,” he said. “Now it’s full.”

Rigel thruster firing in the Mojave. Source, impulse space.

to mars

“Full on” may be an understatement. Impulse has raised a remarkable amount of money for such a young space startup, including a $20 million seed round led by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and a subsequent $10 million investment from VC firm Lux Capital. Judging by Mueller’s resume, he didn’t have to search very hard — or at all — for people willing to put their cash behind his ideas.

“Somebody asked me, ‘How long did it take for investors to give you money after you incorporated Impulse? And I said, ‘Actually, I included Impulse because I had investors tell me they wanted me to fund want to do,’ said Mueller.

Nor has the Impulse had too much trouble finding talent. The startup has now grown to about forty people, with many of the tech leadership team, such as Kevin Miller, VP of Propulsion, George Ketigian, VP of Integration, and Paul Seebacher, VP of Manufacturing, with prior experience at SpaceX. Impulse’s COO, Barry Matsumori, had a nearly four-year stint at SpaceX as SVP of sales and business development.

Impulse made an ambitious announcement earlier this month that it would attempt a Mars mission with Relativity Space. Both companies, neither of which have yet sent their respective technologies into orbit, want to launch by 2024. It was the idea of ​​relativity, Mueller said. He described how Zach Dunn, Relativity’s SVP of engineering and manufacturing and former SpaceX-er, contacted Mueller about the mission. (Mueller and Dunn move back, after Mueller hires them for an internship at SpaceX.)

Impulse Space Mars Lander

Mars Lander. Source, impulse space.

,[Dunn] Goes, ‘Are you in?’ I thought it was the best thing. It was kind of scary – super scary, super hard, but I think we’re the right people to do it. I actually feel better if I’m a little scared. ,

The agreement between Impulse and Relativity is through 2029. If they don’t make a 2024 launch date, they’ll have another opportunity when the stars (literally) align in the next 2026. Relativity will provide the launch vehicle, its heavy-lift Terran R rocket, while Impulse, a Mars cruise vehicle, will manufacture the spacecraft, entry capsule and lander.

If everything goes according to plan, the Mars mission will not be Impulse’s first mission. The company wants to fly an orbital transport vehicle late next year, and in the meantime is working on testing Rigel engines, building and testing valves, avionics suits, and more. And while Mars will likely be the most challenging mission on Impulse’s docket, Mueller has shown that he is not the type to fear a challenge.

a noble goal

Much of Mueller’s vision for the Impulse is based on being extremely low-cost at launch, and as a result, there are a lot of payloads in space that need to be moved around. He compared the internet to fully reusable heavy-lift rockets like the Starship, Terran R and Rocket Lab’s Neutron from the early ’90s. “People don’t really know what it’s going to do or what it is or what the real killer apps are,” he said.

Terran R will have a payload capacity of 20,000 kg and will be capable of sending 13,000 kg of neutrons into orbit. If SpaceX can pull it off, each Starship launch would weigh a staggering 100-150 tons. The possibilities that such a paradigm-shifting launch could create are hard to imagine.

“I think we’re going to be surprised how much space is going to change to store so much stuff at such a low cost,” Muller said.

Relativity CEO Tim Ellis and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have spoken separately about a vision for a future for humanity that is multi-planetary – in several public statements, Musk calls his mission “consciousness”. Expressed as the extension of the light of. In-universe – and Mueller is apparently onboard to visit the Red Planet. But he added that he is also inspired by things a little closer to home.

He pointed to the potential of the lunar and cis-lunar economy to help unload the Moon and Earth’s resources. Many valuable elements exist on and under the Moon’s surface, as well as water and ice. Myriad startups, as well as the world’s major space agencies, have begun eyeing how to harness those resources. Mueller said he wants to help build a future where heavy industry and power generation, two sectors notable for their carbon emissions, can go to space.

“It’s like my great goal,” he said. “It may not happen in my lifetime, but I think helping to establish a low-cost reliable transportation network in space could help get it started.”