If there was one thing Tom Mueller left resonating with the graduates of the University of Idaho’s class of 2018, it was that they should never settle for ordinary, and instead they should strive for their wildest dreams.
Mueller, who was the commencement guest speaker Saturday at the UI’s graduation ceremonies in the Kibbie Dome, is the co-founder of SpaceX and a 1985 graduate from UI with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Although he came from a humble logging family in St. Maries, Idaho, and was the only one in his immediate family to attend college, Mueller eventually went on to be a rocket scientist.
He told the thousands of graduates and their families that gathered Saturday it was his high school freshman year math teacher who changed the trajectory of his life. Mueller said he always thought he would be an aircraft mechanic, until his teacher asked him, “Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the one who designs the plane?”
That was a pivotal point in his life, he said, telling the graduates to ask themselves the same question in respect to their own lives, goals and passions.
When Mueller graduated from the UI there were no career prospects that would allow him to work on rockets in the Northwest, so to his father’s dismay, Mueller packed his belongings and moved to California. Eventually getting a job working on spaceship engines and joining a rocket club that led to an introduction with Elon Musk – co-founder of PayPal – whom he partnered with to start SpaceX.
“I came to a fork in the road where I made the right choice to do what I love,” he said.
“Find out what your good at and find out what you love, hopefully they are the same thing and you are able to make a career out of it,” Mueller told the graduates.
Mueller said now, 16 years after starting SpaceX, the company recently announced its aspirations to establish a human settlement on Mars.
“It may seem like science fiction now, but within your lifetime regular and affordable access to space will be a reality,” he said.
Mueller said the graduates sitting in their caps and gowns Saturday will be the “agents of change” in the coming decades – not just in space exploration, but also in technology and medical advancements that could solve some of today’s largest problems like global warming, poverty and food shortages.
As a man of math, science and equations, Mueller told the graduates if they take their abilities and combine it with a little luck, it will equal success. But at the same time they must be willing to work hard and earn their own way in life without handouts. Those are the lessons his father, the logger, instilled in him, he said.
“Do something meaningful, don’t settle for ordinary,” were Mueller’s parting words to the graduates. For some, he said, leaving college probably seems just as scary as traveling to Mars.