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George Low made the hard choices on Apollo: a review of “The Ultimate Engineer”

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The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low
by Richard Jurek
University of Nebraska Press, 2019
hardcover: 344 pages, illus.
ISBN 978-0-8032-9955-9

The Apollo program was an immensely complicated project that some estimates indicate involved nearly 400,000 people working on different aspects of it, spread all across the country. Despite the hundreds of books written about Apollo in the past half century, surprisingly, a number of key officials and aspects of the program have been, if not entirely overlooked, certainly not given the attention they are due. One of these people is George Low, a senior NASA official who made numerous key decisions in the program while based in Houston but frequently traveling to NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. Low has often been relegated to the background in Apollo histories that focus on astronauts and rockets, despite playing a major role in keeping Apollo focused on its goal of beating the Russians to the Moon. Low, for instance, was the main driver of the gutsy decision to send Apollo 8 around the Moon in December 1968. Now, Richard Jurek has written a book focused on Low that gives him his due.

Jurek previously co-wrote Marketing the Moon, about how NASA, industry and the media all covered the Moon landings (see “Review: Marketing the Moon”, The Space Review, March 31, 2014). In The Ultimate Engineer, Jurek explains how Low’s background and training, as well as his temperament, made him well-qualified to make tough technical decisions.

While Jurek does fill in the blanks concerning Low’s (decidedly un-scandalous) personal life, the book focuses with specificity upon the traits that made Low an effective leader.

The book begins with Low’s modest, sometimes terrifying beginnings in World War II-era Austria, where his family’s Jewish religion made them a target of the burgeoning Nazi regime. Following the loss of his family’s social and economic status, the Low family made their way to New York (after brief stays in Switzerland and England) via the SS Veendam.

After completing his education New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)—an education briefly interrupted by a wartime stint in the US Army—Low’s gaze settled upon becoming employed at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). Low’s career would begin as a lowly research scientist at the agency’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, being paid the paltry sum of $147 every two weeks. By the end of his career at NASA—the agency that grew from the NACA—he would become deputy administrator of the space agency, and even filled in as acting administrator between the Paine and Fletcher eras.

The Ultimate Engineer functions as part biography and part leadership primer. While Jurek does fill in the blanks concerning Low’s (decidedly un-scandalous) personal life, the book focuses with specificity upon the traits that made Low an effective leader not only during the Apollo program, but also during the trying transitional period between the Paine and Fletcher administrations. We learn how, at the beginning of Low’s NACA career, he learned the ropes from Abe Silverstein, head of propulsion research at Lewis. Silverstein’s insistence on attention to detail left a mark upon young Low, who relayed in a July 1972 interview with Robert Sherrod revisited by Jurek: “What I learned from [Silverstein] more than anything was that to do a job, and to do it well, you have to dig into the engineering and pay very close attention to the details.” This characteristic would benefit Low, and NASA, especially after the January 1967 Apollo 1 fire, and helped guide North American and NASA through an arduous redesign of the Block 2 command module.

One big reveal we learn in The Ultimate Engineer is that Low frequently butted heads with George Mueller, who headed the Office of Manned Space Flight during much of the Apollo era. Following the Apollo 1 fire, Low, now in Houston as the Manned Spacecraft Center’s (MSC) deputy center director, spearheaded an effort to better centralize NASA to ensure that decisions were made locally. Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman is quoted in the book discussing how the previous lack of focus affected Apollo, and ultimately contributed to the tragedy: “[Apollo] was not integrated enough into the center, and a lot of the decisions were made in Washington. That just doesn’t work.”

Low acted by bringing Robert Gilruth back into the chain of command as Apollo’s program manager at MSC partly to provide a “buffer” between him and Mueller. While this decision did serve to empower Low and Gilruth, skirmishes and confrontations still lingered between Low in Houston and Mueller in Washington. Jurek writes, “It is clear from Low’s notes that he never let the pressure from Mueller’s office in Washington divert him from what he thought was best in terms of safety, schedule, or chain of command. He certainly wasn’t afraid to hop on a plane to Washington to set the record straight if Gilruth wasn’t able to contain Mueller.” In the end, Low’s efforts to “ask questions, [receive] answers, and [ask] more questions” resulted in over a thousand changes to the Apollo spacecraft, and undoubtedly contributed to the successful debut flight of Apollo 7, and, of course, Apollo 8’s historic circumlunar voyage. (We also learn that Mueller criticized Low’s insistence that Apollo 8 be flown around the Moon, feeling it was an “unnecessary risk.”)

It’s hard to understand why George Low’s tale hasn’t been previously well-chronicled, and perhaps owes to his early death from cancer at 58 in 1984.

Like many biographies, The Ultimate Engineer is a bit too adulatory of its subject. While we do find out that Low did not suffer fools gladly and, according to colleague George Abbey, “was not very patient with individuals who didn’t know their job,” we don’t hear much about Low’s potentially impertinent moments. While Jurek does mention that Time magazine referred to Low as being “reserved and distant… not a humorous man,” Jurek insists Low was “serious,” but not without his funny moments (indeed, a note from Low’s archives addressed to Gilruth details a laundry list of problems that arose during Gilruth’s vacation, with “Welcome back!” added breezily at its end). Later, as the head of his alma mater RPI following his departure from NASA, we find out he’d regularly bring donuts to students waiting in lines for hockey games, which certainly doesn’t jibe with having a cold, humorless image.

Low is the kind of subject that makes historians tear up in gratitude. Upon leaving NASA he donated his papers to RPI. But he had also dictated regular summaries of the main events of his days at NASA and included key documents with those summaries, grouped by week. His papers are an incredible resource to space historians seeking to understand what was happening in the Apollo program on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, his papers were an important source for Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s outstanding book Apollo: The Race to the Moon, which remains one of the best overall histories of that program. It is therefore rather startling that it has taken so long for somebody to write about Low—he made it a lot easier than most subjects.

It’s hard to understand why George Low’s tale hasn’t been previously well-chronicled, and perhaps owes to his early death from cancer at 58 in 1984. Unlike some other NASA luminaries like Gene Kranz, he didn’t have a movie or a book later in life to make him famous. However, The Ultimate Engineer deftly illuminates Low’s untold story, underscoring how his leadership attributes guided NASA through a difficult time following tragedy, and how he similarly provided focus during the challenging transitional period between Apollo’s end and Shuttle’s early development.

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