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Remembering RPI's George Low On Apollo 11 Anniversary

George Low Gallery
Jacquelyn Orchard
The George M. Low Gallery is open year-round on the 4th floor of the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation at RPI.

July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong called it one giant leap for all mankind. Thousands of people worked to get the astronauts to the moon and back — including one with strong ties to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

The 14th president of RPI came to the job with a pretty solid resume behind him: he’d helped bring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. A 1948 RPI graduate in Aeronautical Engineering, George Low had a voice in NASA from the very beginning, helping to plan the organization in 1958. He was named the organization’s first Chief of Manned Space Flight, and RPI Dean of Science Curt Breneman says that ultimately gave Low direct involvement in Projects Mercury, Gemini, and, of course, Apollo.

George Low
Credit wikipedia.org
George M. Low

“One very interesting thing is that John F. Kennedy actually got the idea that he could do this from George Low – it was actually a suggestion, like ‘Yes, this could be possible,'" notes Breneman. 

Breneman clarifies Low didn’t actually speak to the president, but it was his research that convinced Kennedy it was possible to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s. Author Richard Jurek, who is completing a biography on the engineer (The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low), says Low became especially important to the program after Apollo 1 caught fire in 1967. Three astronauts died in what was supposed to be a pre-flight test – three men Jurek says Low knew well – and things at NASA were tense, as people began to lose confidence.

“[Low] was brought in at a time when everyone was pointing their fingers at each other and trying to blame each other. Contractors were blaming NASA, NASA was blaming the contractors," Jurek says. "And he was brought in as a very calm force to bring everyone together. To fix those problems and put us back on schedule to get to the moon.”

Jurek says Low and his team essentially took apart Apollo 1 – over 2 million parts – and drove the spacecraft’s forensic investigation and redesign. The initial spark came from exposed wiring at the base of the spacecraft, but Jurek says a host of issues led to the deadly fire. There were a number of flammable materials in the cabin, he says, and the highly pressurized escape hatch effectively trapped the astronauts inside. 

“Faulty wiring, faulty switches, redundant systems that really weren’t redundant that were cancelling each other out, poor-quality workmanship – and the problems just cascaded," Jurek explains. "They made close to 1,500 engineering changes to the capsule.”

Before the Apollo 1 fire, Jurek says managers did not keep a close enough eye on changes made to the spacecraft, and how those alterations interacted with one another. In turn, Jurek says Low established and chaired a Change Configuration Board in Houston to better manage the Apollo program.

George Low Gallery
Credit Jacquelyn Orchard
The George M. Low Gallery also has exhibits on NASA's Space Shuttle and Skylab programs.

“Not a single change could happen to the capsule without those changes first being debated and decided at the CCB. And once that change was done, it was communicated equally throughout the entire supply chain on Apollo," says Jurek. "Every engineer, every person who touched that capsule was aware of what was going on. And this brought order out of the chaos.”

All of this came together in little over two years – because we all know what happened next.    

Low was named NASA deputy administrator in 1969. While Dean Breneman says “there will never be another Apollo,” and it’s hard for any accomplishment to stand up next to that, he says Low stuck with NASA and maintained an influence on projects like Skylab until he left for RPI in 1976. Breneman says Low’s legacy lives on in the scientific achievements of today.

“I was 13 years old when this landing happened. It was the reason that drove me into science essentially," Breneman admits. "That kind of thinking outside the box leads to developments that are still happening now. And George was right in the middle of that.”

Low died of cancer on July 17, 1984 at the age of 58 – just as President Reagan said he would award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The George M. Low Gallery at RPI, which was partially funded by the Delta Phi fraternity Low once led, is open to the public year-round. 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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