Category: Non-Fiction
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George Low
Author: Richard Jurek
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 285
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Date: December, 2019
Retail price: $32.95
ISBN: 978-0803299559

We have been fortunate to have had many outstanding individuals move through the space program over the years—being key players in the numerous manned and unmanned systems. George M. Low was one that I was aware of (based on some of his specific actions), such as the Apollo 8 decision. But without an in-depth biography, many of us don’t know the true significance of an individual. This book by author Richard Jurek provides an excellent survey of Low’s life work and is filled with quotes that bring the personal perspective.

As an immigrant from Austria, Low escaped Nazi tyranny with his family at age 14. But it cost his family one of the largest business enterprises in that country. Arriving in New York City in 1940, he completed high school and started college at Rensselaer Technical Institute before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. He returned to Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (note the name change). Following graduation, he accepted a position with the NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Lab in Cleveland, where his knowledge and skills were quickly put to work in 1949.

The author nicely describes Low’s transition from an aeronautical engineer to a manned spacecraft engineer that occurred with Sputnik’s launch in 1957 and the transformation of NACA into NASA in 1958. Low’s comments regarding the lack of women in the initial selection of astronauts are revealing in its honesty and realistic understanding that beating the Soviets to the Moon was a national priority. Jackie Cochran’s comments are also quoted that reinforce his thought process.

The book is filled with informative vignettes such as a brief segment of the oft-criticized decision by Wernher von Braun to fly one more Mercury Redstone unmanned in March 1961, which cost the United States the prestige of having the first man in space. The delayed manned Mercury flight was then upstaged by the Soviet flight of Yuri Gagarin a few weeks later.

Because of his engineering expertise, I was expecting more detail on the Mercury program. But Low was in Washington D.C. during much of that period as his boss (Abe Silverstein) recognized Low’s technical knowledge and his ability to translate it to the uninformed, which helped sell the nascent space program to a somewhat reluctant Congress.

The author portrays Low’s role in the early 1960s as providing critical planning material on which future decisions on the direction the space program would take. It was Low’s foresight that produced a firm belief that a manned lunar landing could be achieved within the decade as President Kennedy would announce to the nation in his momentous speech in May 1961. Low’s reluctant acceptance of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the best path to the Moon is effectively described, along with his eventual appreciation that the project would not have succeeded without it.

As with most all Jurek’s writing, Low’s transition in 1964 from a Washington bureaucrat to a more hands-on manager in Houston to work directly on the Gemini spacecraft under Robert Gilruth, is well articulated. However, the author chose not to provide much of Low’s interaction with the Gemini effort.

The Apollo 1 fire and the deaths of Grissom, Chaffee, and White caused a shakeup in the Apollo management structure in 1967. Low was selected to replace Joe Shea, who was forced to resign. His job as the new Apollo Program Manager was to redesign and redo the Apollo spacecraft. Low’s management style, knowledge, and ability to communicate made significant changes that allowed the Apollo program to move past the tragedy and successfully address the issues. He received much recognition.

Low’s thoughts to control modifications (a major headache for the spacecraft) resulted in creating the Change Control Board (CCB). This highlights his organizational philosophy, and the CCB was a key ingredient in getting Apollo back on track after the fire. Software changes were a particular problem for MIT because many requests came from the astronauts. The author does an excellent job of describing important technology aspects that help the reader understand complex concepts.

Jurek has done the remarkable task of revealing the problems Low found at both North American Aviation (builders of the Service Module) and Grumman Aircraft (builders of the Lunar Module). His research is excellent, and the few errors, such as citing the “Nixon-Khrushchev” summit in 1972, which should have been the “Nixon-Brezhnev” summit, are of little consequence.

Low’s proposal to use the Apollo 8 mission as a circumlunar exercise is nicely covered with appropriate input from crucial individuals quoted. The author notes that NASA administrator James Webb decided to leave NASA during this period (October 1968), in part, because of that bold decision.  Low’s emotional concerns during the Apollo 8 flight are effectively portrayed, as was the credit due him for moving the mission forward. The discussions on the planting of the U.S. flag on the Moon are fascinating.

Readers should find the readjustment of NASA’s goals that followed the successful Moon landing painfully interesting. Low was acting NASA administrator during this time and guided its downsizing to reduce the impact on the organization and the thousands who were affected. His interactions with the Soviets are quite compelling. He was a major factor in achieving an agreement with the Russians for the Apollo-Soyuz mission. His ability to get the Space Shuttle funded is likewise noteworthy.

During the last Apollo missions, NASA’s problems involved both Equal Employment Opportunity matters and the astronauts cashing in on personal items taken to the Moon. These are succinctly and adequately discussed.

Low’s transition to Rensselaer Polytechnic as its president is well reviewed, and the reader will be reinforced in their judgment of him as a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and compassionate leader. At RPI, Low enacted programs that moved the institution to technical prominence. But he also engaged in numerous committees to assist NASA, the FAA, and Presidents Carter and Reagan. The book ends with a summary of the Space Shuttle’s shortcomings, and some thoughts on what might have been, had Low continued at NASA.

George M. Low died in July 1984 at age 58 from cancer. One can only speculate as to how much more he might have contributed had he enjoyed a longer life. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and through the author’s efforts, I have a better appreciation for his contributions to mankind’s movement into space.

This book is part of the University of Nebraska Press book series Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight.

© 2020 Ted Spitzmiller

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