[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.