Who was George Low?

[May 20, 2020]  It is impossible to forget the day NASA’s Apollo 11 mission launch occurred.  The day at Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida, was bright and sunny on July 16, 1970, and much was riding on the success of the mission.  The man who was key to the success of that launch was George Low, NASA Administrator, appointed as acting administer in early 1970.

George Low (1926-1984) was a dedicated engineer, family man, and NASA innovator.  He left NASA in 1976 to become president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a position he held at his death.  But it was his work at NASA that showed his genius and ability to manage a large, highly intricate organization with a mission of going to the moon and back safely by the end of the decade.

Low was involved in the planning and management of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.  In 1967 after the Apollo 1 accident killing three astronauts, he took over responsibility for the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft.  He demonstrated his brilliance by recommending that Apollo 8 go into lunar orbit from an Earth orbit.  This effort was of particular importance in 1968, and his idea to circumnavigate the moon was a stroke of genius.

Aerospace engineer and aviation/space pioneer Bob Gilruth was quoted as saying of Low’s effort that “it broke the back of the Russian moon-landing effort, and it left the U.S. free to take its time and concentrate on doing the job of landing a man on the moon” during Apollo 11.  NASA Flight Director Glynn Lunney suggested that Low “brought the [Apollo] program out of despair and brought it into the sunlight.”  This effort helped return the Apollo project schedule to the promised date for the Moon landing.

At the time, NASA employed over 300,000 people to make the moon landings possible.  Such was a herculean effort that it pales today’s space program efforts.

We should not fail to remember that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time in the United States and the world.  The Vietnam War was unpopular, protests were frequent, and violence over the war was common.  Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed but was largely ignored.  The Soviet Union was in a race to show the superiority of the Communist political system.  And, assassinations of prominent political and social figures were tearing America apart.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man to step onto the lunar surface and was broadcast live to a worldwide audience.  Apollo 11 effectively ended the Space Race and fulfilled a national goal proposed in 1961 by U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Who was George Low?

  1. Richard

    It was wonderful to read this story! George Low’s life and remarkable career are indeed inspirational as well as instructive. For those that want more info, they can read my Air & Space Cover Story on Low at https://www.airspacemag.com/space/apollo-8-george-low-profile-180970807/ And if you want to learn more about Low and his life, you can read my recently published biography of Low from the University of Nebraska Press Outward Odyssey series. It it titled The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low. You can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Engineer-Remarkable-Visionary-Spaceflight/dp/0803299559

      1. Richard

        Thank you, Douglas! I hope you enjoy as well. It has been the honor of my life to help bring Low’s inspiring and purpose-driven life story to new readers and audiences. There is so much to learn from him and his example.

  2. José Luis Rodriguez

    Very well written on a man of great importance to not just the scientific advancement of conquering space but one that also had a great impact on our nation at a time it needed something good to see and hear about. This time was difficult regardless of where you were in the world. To undertake such a huge complex mission and then get it all right was an achievement we should be studying for years to come.

  3. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    Interesting. This little series you have on “who is” regularly peeks my interest. It’s almost like Paul Harvey’s ‘and now the rest of the story.’ I’ve learned a lot from these so please keep up the series. In the future, I’ll recommend some not-so famous people for you to consider.

    1. Len Jakosky

      Yes, I agree Otto that this under-read but very intriguing series should be read by all. Big things happen in the past but we always have no idea why. Always, there is leadership that is making things happen. A difficult job but someone is doing it and I wish I knew their secrets.

      1. Stacey Borden

        I may be new here but I noticed a number of mini series articles that tie things together. Good reason to be a regular reader.

  4. JT Patterson

    Excellent article today and timely. The anniversary of the program’s main successes are coming up in the next few months. I suspect we will see more on televsion.

  5. Albert Ayer

    The walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong and the overall success of the program was the result of hundreds of thousands of people working in harmony toward an attainable, necessary goal. Their mission was straight forward and by George Low’s guidance and leadership, they were able to make it to the moon and back many times. What a great story to be told.

  6. William DeSanto

    The entire space program and the space race between the USSR and the USA was an amazing time full of tragedies and successes. I remember the times well.

    1. Tracey Brockman

      Yes, and the result was the development of technology that continues to make our lives better and easier.

    2. Doug Smith

      Good point, William. I watched the movie Apollo 13 recently starring Tom Hanks. Great movie about the program and gave a small glimpse into the intricacies of the program and the dedication of those who worked on the program.

  7. Karl J.

    Nicely written on an important man but one who was not given the credit he was due. IMO, George Low was one of the best top men at NASA.

  8. apache2

    I always wondered what happened that George Low would be appointed as administrator in the middle of the space program. It turns out that it was the death of the three astronauts in Apollo I that forced a change in mgt and in the way the program operated. The changes made by George Low was considered the reason America beat the Soviets to the moon.

    1. Kenny Foster

      This is spot on and good analysis too, apache2. The space program was a great example of skilled, experienced leadership, people working toward an admirable goal, and support from the people. When you have all those factors behind you, the world is open.

      1. apache2

        Thanks Kenny, I try. I recommend folks read up on George Low … his past was also interesting.

    2. Shawn C. Stolarz

      Tragedy presents opportunities and he was the follow up to the Apollo 1 tragedy.

  9. Wendy Holmes

    We never look behind he curtain when it comes to large orgs like NASA. Good article.


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