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GEORGE MICHAEL LOW 1926-1984 BY JAMES C. FLETCHER GEORGE MICHAEL LOW, a long-term pioneer in the nation's space program and a key figure in the success of the Apollo lunar lancling, died of cancer at age fifty-eight on July 17, 1984. During the previous eight years, George Low was pres- ident of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and, in addition to cleveloping the institute into one of the nation's finest, played a leacling role in formulating the nation's science and tech- nology policy. In fact, in recent years, whenever strong leadership was neecled to resolve a new problem or to pursue a new oppor- tunity in any branch of science or technology, George Low's name was always at the top of the list. His contributions cov- ered a broad span of disciplines: aviation, education, manu- facturing technology, research, space automation almost anything on the "cutting edge" of technology. George Low was born in a small town just outside of Vi- enna, Austria, in 1926. His family emigrated to America when George was only fourteen, by which time his obsession with engineering and technical matters was already well es- tablishect. After graduating from high school in only two years, he enterer] Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, but was ctraftecl into the army at the age of eigh- teen. During his army service, he became a naturalized citizen 251
252 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES (in 1945) and received his pilot's license. He was discharger! in 1946 and returned to Rensselaer, earning a B.S. (1948) and an M.S. (1950) in aeronautical engineering. While at Rensselaer he married Mary R. McNamara, of Troy, New York, a wonderful lacly who supporte(1 George fully in all his later endeavors. In 1949 George Low joined NASAs predecessor organi- zation, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), ant! began work as a research scientist at Lewis Re- search Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. He remained there until 1958, publishing many reports on his research. He soon clemonstrated leadership qualities at the Lewis lab in several capacities, the last of which was chief of the Special Projects Branch, a position he helct until NASA was formed in 1958. At that time he was brought to Washington as chief of manned space flight for the newly formed agency. In his new capacity, he helpe(1 prepare the material for President John F. Kennedy that lecl to the president's an- nouncement in 1961 that the country would embark on a program to lane] men on the moon before the end of the decade. As the new Apollo program got under way in 1964, the Manned Spacecraft Center (now called the Johnson Space Center) was establisher! in Houston, Texas, and George Low was appointed deputy director. In this capacity, he hac] overall responsibility for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft clevelopment, as well as for future program clevel- opment and flight and astronaut operationsin fact, for all activities related to manned space. In April 1967, after the disastrous Apollo fire that killect three astronauts, NASA administrator James Webb agreed that Low should work fulItime on Apollo spacecraft devel- opment as manager of the Apollo spacecraft program. In this capacity, Low worked a grueling ninety-hour week for more than a year and a half. In 1968 he clecIarecl that the Apollo spacecraft was flight-worthy and persua(led deputy administrator Thomas Paine to move the first flight to the moon ahead of schedule to December 196S, thus leacling to
GEORGE MICHAEL LOW 253 the historic Apollo &, flight around the moon during the Christmas season with astronauts Frank Borman, Bill An- ctrews, and Jim Lovell aboard. The moon landing soon followed on July 20, 1969, with Neil Armstrong setting the first human foot on the moon- a step that completed the program that George Low had rec- ommended and President Kennedy had approved eight years previously. A plaque in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum placer! less than a month after his death attests to this fact. In December 1969 Low was again summoner] to Washing- ton, this time by President Richard Nixon. to become cleouty administrator of NASA. -1- ~ He served in that capacity until all the Apollo flights were completed, including the Sky Lab and the Apollo-Soyuz programs. The latter hac! been initiated by President Nixon and Premier Brezhnev cluring the historic summit conference of 1972. (At the suggestion of Dr. Henry Kissinger, however, Low tract been sent on several secret mis- sions to the Soviet Union to determine with absolute cer- tainty that the program was feasible, both technically and po- litically, before the president agreed to place it on the agenda for the summit conference.) The entire program, from start to finish, was completed in three years another near mira- cle, especially considering the requirement of joint clevelop- ment by two countries with completely different cultures ant] political systems. At the conclusion of the Apollo program and after twenty- seven years of government service not withstanding NASAs embarkation, under his leadership, on the new space shuttle program Low began to consider the many offers he received of positions outside the fecleral government. The choice was easy. Even during his NASA clays, he had enjoyed being with young people, and his vision of the future in- cluded the education of the next generation of leaders in the world of technologythe follow-on, so to speak, of the Apollo heritage. Thus, when he was invited in 1976 to be- come the fourteenth president of his old alma mater, Rens-
254 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES selaer Polytechnic Institute (RPl), he accepted readily and began his second career. RPI had always tract an exceptional student bocly, most of which was drawn from the top five to ten percent of students taking college admission tests. Low proceeclect to broaden its earlier reputation as a first-cIass undergraduate school to that of a national research university anc! a pioneer in several areas of new technology. This program involvec! a number of activities on Low's part, many of which required new skills that had not been apparent during NASA days for ex- ample, raising money. Low's mastering of such skills was soon evident as new builclings were constructed, an inclustrial park was developed, prestigious faculty were acIdecI, and RET established new programs in manufacturing technology, computer graphics, and integrated electronics that were among the first in the nation. Recognizing that the national visibility of RPI clepencled partly on his own contributions, George began to accept as- signments on the national level that he felt were sufficiently important to require leadership from someone of his stature. Perhaps the assignment with greatest visibility was his chair- ing of the commission established uncler the National Re- search Council to examine in detail the operation and main- tenance procedures of the Federal Aviation Administration after the disastrous DC-10 crash in Chicago in 1979. Within the National Academies of Science and Engineer- ing, his contribution was most outstanding in his role, in 1981, as the first chairman of COSEPUP (Committee on Sci- ence, Engineering, ant! Public Policy). Studies ranging from a broac! consideration of security restrictions on university research to the technical competitiveness of U.S. industry were conducted under COSEPUP's jurisdiction; all such studies involved the nation's top scientists anc! engineers. Na- tional policy in science and engineering has, to a large extent, been derived from the studies sponsored by COSEPUP, which Low chaired. George Low had many talents and used them well to serve
GEORGE MICHAEL LOW 255 the nation and to educate future world leaclers. His writing and speaking skills were well known and were used effec- tively in managerial positions, in many of his published speeches, ant! in his numerous committee assignments (and, occasionally, as an outlet for his quiet humor, as the author of this tribute can testify). Another talent was his keen sense of institutional mecha- nisms and how they aiclect or hinderer} whatever program he might be implementing at the time. This ability was espe- cially apparent at NASA headquarters in dealing with the White House and Congress, but it was also noticeable in his public speaking engagements at RPT and in his clearings with the governor and the state legislature of New York. He was a relentless program manager with an enormous capacity for absorbing details to the wonder of everyone who worked for him. At one point, during the period follow- ing the Apollo fire, he said, "I probably know as much about toggle switches as anyone else does in the worm." Toggle switches had been one of the flaws in the Apollo spacecraft. As a program manager, he had little tolerance for sloppy work, excuses for errors, or general incompetence. One did not remain for long on Low's team if any of these character- istics was apparent. On the other hand, he never failed to praise those who did measure up. In fact, many of Low's pro- teges are now in charge of significant portions of the NASA program and active in other parts of government. It is to be expected that more recent graduates of RPI will be equally successful. George Low rarely commented on his many accomplish- ments, but once when asked, he stated "A career isn't a plan, it's a series of opportunities." For him, that statement was, incleecl, true. He could have remainec! a skilled, successful researcher and enjoyed it, or he could have been an exacting clesigner-engineer. Yet the combination of his talents and his capacity for hard work when the occasion required it pushed him into more anct more responsible positions a progres- sion that ended only with his deathas president of RPI,
256 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES chairman of COSEPUP, and a director of the General Elec- tric Company. His clearsighted perception of future trends led him to a firm, positive belief in progress and, although his vision was always on "the future," his contributions, both at NASA and at RPI, were practical, well thought out, and completed in "the present." His interest in the future was reflected in an interest in youth, not only at NASA and RPI but also in his Elevation to his five children, Mark, Diane, David, John, and Nancy. Low received many honors, medals, and honorary degrees throughout his career, beginning, perhaps, in 1963 with the Arthur FIemming Award for the ten outstanding young men in government and continuing with the National Academy of Engineering's Founders Award in 1978the highest award given by the academy. On July 20, 1984, the fifteenth anniversary of the lancting on the moon and three days after George how's passing, President Reagan announced that Low wouIct receive the Medal of Freedom, the nation's high- est award to a civilian. George Low was impressive as an associate, awesome as a boss, but kinkily and gentle as a friend. As the president said on July 20, "We're grateful for what George Low has done and the ideals he stood for, and we'll miss him very much."