MOSCOW, Idaho — Many people know that influential billionaire and engineer Elon Musk serves as the founder of SpaceX. But it may be surprising to hear that a North Idaho native and University of Idaho graduate helps launch rockets alongside of him.

Tom Mueller grew up in St. Maries as the son of a logging-truck driver, according to an article from the University of Idaho. This was where Mueller experimented with plastic and cardboard model rockets in elementary school.

Many of Mueller’s early hobbies revolved around science and engineering, according to the university. In high school, he imagined himself becoming an airplane mechanic.

Mueller’s studies eventually took him to U of I’s College of Engineering, where he learned he could one day work on launching rockets into space. He graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

“I was amazed at the power of physics and how nearly everything could be expressed in mathematical terms,” he told the school.

In May 2018, the university presented Mueller with an honorary doctorate of engineering at the commencement ceremony. He was inducted into the university’s Academy of Engineers one year earlier.

After earning a master of science in mechanical engineering from Loyola Marymount in 1992, Mueller spent 15 years as a rocket development engineer before joining Musk and Chris Thompson in 2002 to start what would become SpaceX. He now serves as the company’s propulsion chief technology officer.

SpaceX’s new crew capsule returned to Earth on Friday, ending its first test flight with a splashdown. The Dragon undocked from the International Space Station early Friday. Six hours later, the capsule carrying a test dummy plopped into the Atlantic off the Florida coast.

It marks the first time in 50 years that a capsule designed for astronauts returned from space by plopping into the Atlantic.

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Earlier this week, Spokane native and NASA Astronaut Anne McClain took a phone call from Vice President Mike Pence about the successful landing of the SpaceX Crew Dragon on Sunday morning.

“It was inspiring to see the launch. It was even more inspiring to see the docking and to see you open that door and float into that spacecraft knowing that we’ll very soon have American astronauts aboard,” Pence told the astronauts.

“Witnessing Dragon docking was a real honor. We feel very privileged to have been a part of it,” McClain answered. “There’s an intersection of practical and magical. In the back of our mind we knew how significant it was and how important it was for the whole history of spaceflight.”

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