Top SpaceX employee throws shade at just about all of his competitors

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Enlarge / On March 31 SpaceX made the world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket.

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About 10 days ago, a founding employee of SpaceX, Tom Mueller, made a Skype call to a group of “fans” of the company with the New York University Astronomy Society. The call was recorded and posted to It garnered little attention until Saturday, when a user on the SpaceX subreddit called attention to it.

Although the provenance of the 54-minute call is not entirely clear, there is no question it is Mueller speaking, and he is doing so in a rare, unfiltered way. The 15-year employee of SpaceX, who is now the company’s Propulsion Chief Technology Officer, says things that many of SpaceX’s employees probably feel, but which are nonetheless impolitic. In other words, Mueller throws shade at just about everyone. For example, of the company’s most immediate rival, United Launch Alliance, Mueller has this to say: “The cost that the government cost-plus programs charge for their rockets is just ridiculous.”

During an approximately 30-minute monologue, which was followed by a Q&A, Mueller expands on what it was like to work at a start-up rocket company when the field was populated primarily by large aerospace companies and government entities, and to eventually come out on top. “We really changed the industry,” he says. “The other guys are really scrambling. It’s pretty funny to watch.” The call originates about a month after SpaceX’s historic flight of a reused rocket.

Space Launch System, which will cost more than a billion dollars to fly and will not be reused. “If your rocket costs a billion dollars, even if you use it 100 times, it’s still going to be very expensive to use. So we set out to build low-cost rockets from the very beginning.”

This call is reminiscent of remarks made a little more than a year ago by a senior-level employee of SpaceX’s competitor, United Launch Alliance. During candid remarks at a University of Colorado-Boulder seminar, which Brett Tobey did not know were being recorded, the vice president of engineering said United Launch Alliance could not compete with SpaceX on price. He was terminated almost immediately by the company.

In his visit with the astronomy club, Mueller talks about more than rockets. He says he admires SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but finds him “trippy” to work for. He also said that the boss’ mood can swing wildly from day to day depending upon the success of SpaceX and his car company, Tesla. Mueller echoes his boss in regard to concerns (or relative lack thereof) about planetary protection, the effort by NASA to preserve other planets and moons in the Solar System from Earth-based microbes. “NASA has protocols for that which we’re following—initially,” Mueller said.

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