Tom Mueller — The Indomitable Human Spirit

Yes, He’s a Lot Better than You

Chris Tan
4 min readMar 16, 2020

Amidst all the wonderful characters of the modern century, whose charisma and personality serve as cultural magnets for the human condition, one may lose sight of what is truly important underneath the shadow of these larger-than-life figures.

Such is the case for Tom Mueller, SpaceX’s co-founder with origins that are literally carved in wood, rough around the edges but made with passion. He possessed not vast amounts of liquid resources but an inexhaustible passion for creating, something far more priceless. As the very epitome of the working man, Tom Mueller’s work speaks volumes about his character than he actually does.

When imagining the factors that dominate the human experience, it’s depressing to think of the pioneers of the future that will be lost in time. Such WAS the case for a young Idaho kid named Tom. Born into a family of wood loggers, it was almost if his fate was decided, whacking at the same log for the rest of his humble lifetime. However, something lit the match that burned through the priceless resource of the human spirit: a devotion towards building rockets. He quite literally took the possible self-pity he might have for himself and re-purposed it into the fuel of spirit, using his father’s acetylene welder, a symbol of his humble upbringing, and re-purposing it into a liquid-fueled rocket. Obstacles became not a detractor, but a motivator. But, he wasn’t the only one on his journey. He was lucky to have one break to lead him on his way.

Quite literally working for your degree.

Just one.

It took one pivotal spark from a teacher to re-light the flame inside him:

Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the guy who designs the plane?

And there he went, logging trees every summer to pay for his own education at Idaho’s state university. Being the first person in his family to receive a higher education wasn’t enough. As long as the candle kept aflame, he would still chase it, no matter how out of reach. He took a large step moving to the west to pursue the dream of working with rockets, against his family’s wishes. However, a long road was still ahead, a 15-year long road, in fact.

Mueller echoed the words of his father,

“no handouts, no freebies.”

He worked, and worked, taking a large step and moving to the West to work for smaller space companies, just out of reach of building rockets. Self-pitied frustration was not his dogma, however; it was a hopeful look towards the future. He couldn’t wait to be handed a job working on rockets; he began building rockets in his very home, taking time, money, and energy out of his life just to fund that dream on the horizon. For nearly a decade, it went unnoticed, until a curious man asked one more question that would re-ignite that raging fire: can you build something bigger?

That one was from Elon Musk.

And the rest is history.

Though Musk holds the title and public perception of genius figurehead behind SpaceX’s rockets, Mueller is far more hands-on in SpaceX, being the chief technology officer for propulsion and the leading mind in rocket engineering in our current century. And who’s to say that Mueller isn’t more deserving of that title than Elon is? It’s important to note, however, that the thought wouldn’t cross Mueller’s mind; he doesn’t grit his teeth or scowl in frustration working under Musk’s shadow. He enjoys the shade, waits patiently, and bides his time. And in time, his time in the sun will come. In the recent year, he’s been getting more recognition, well earned recognition.

I’ve been guilty of uttering “if only” and platitudes about how unfortunate things are for myself. In a world of lurking variables that man cannot/refuses to perceive, the world can be boiled down to hard determinism: external factors that decide the fate of all human lives. However, learning about Tom’s story made me rethink of a world of soft determinism, or no determinism at all. In the world of soft determinism, factors do play a role in determining how one’s life is acted out in the stage of the world. However, there’s an “x factor” to it, and you’ve probably guessed it: the human will. Mueller gives us something to believe in: a path in life that we can control. His passion for building rockets is his x factor.

This was, and always will be Mueller’s ultimate victory:

mastery of the human spirit and all its indomitable potential.

He couldn’t ask for anything more, despite having nearly nothing.

Some humans find their x factor, while others don’t. Some stay in a fetal position, covering themselves with fragile statements of self-pity is a shield. However, others re-use it and turn it into self-expression. Every little screw, every small metal plate, every tiny circuit that runs through the rocket that will take humanity to Mars will be forged from the will and spirit of the man who saw those external obstacles as a challenge.

Go make something.



Chris Tan

Resident moron at the University of Waterloo, living rent-free at