One Giant Leap: Celebrating the 50 Year Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Jetsons, model rockets, words like “liftoff” and “launch,” Star Trek, the Houston Astros…they all have something in common: after 1961, they helped mold pop culture. America had entered the space age, and entertainment, language, fashion, and architecture would never be the same. Nothing, however, ignited America’s fascination with space more than the summer afternoon of July 20th, 1969. On that day, 53 million Americans watched as two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first humans to walk on the moon.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” – Neil Armstrong, 4:18 p.m.

Perhaps you remember growing up and learning about this important event in school. Perhaps you remember watching it live on TV. Are you aware, however, that one of the men who was instrumental in the Apollo missions is none other than George M. Low, ’48, Rensselaer’s president from 1976 to 1984?

Born in Vienna in 1926, Low emigrated to the United States with his family in 1940. After serving in the army during WWII he attended Rensselaer, where he received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering. After graduating, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a Research Scientist at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Ohio, where he specialized in experimental and theoretical research in heat transfer, boundary layer flows, and internal aerodynamics. In addition, he also worked on space technology problems, such as orbit calculations, reentry paths, and space rendezvous techniques.

After NASA was formed in October of 1958, Low transferred to the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC. He served as Chief of Manned Space Flight, and was closely involved in the planning of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. Low assembled the Manned Lunar Landing Task Group in 1960, which researched the technical and planning requirements behind a manned lunar landing, and in 1961, he helped prepare the memorandum for President Kennedy which stated that America had the capability to put astronauts on the moon.

Low quickly moved through the ranks at NASA, being named Assistant Director of Manned Space Flight in June of 1961. Two years later, he was named the Deputy Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight, where he worked on spacecraft development, launch vehicles, and space medicine programs. Low then transferred to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, TX, in 1964. In this role, he was given overall responsibility of the Gemini and Apollo space programs, as well as future program planning and development.

After the disastrous Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in 1967, Low was appointed the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program. He oversaw the complete redesign and retesting of Apollo, where he added more rigorous quality control to strengthen safety operations and procedures. Low immersed himself in the work, making sure that even minor flaws were improved upon. George Abbey, Low’s technical assistant, once said of Low, “he was at work long before most people in the morning, and long after they left at night.”

Aside from revamping Apollo, Low also testified before Congress on budget requests and schedules. During the summer of 1968, Low realized that they were behind schedule on a moon landing, which was a realization the competitive Low didn’t take lightly. In response, Low proposed the idea of a moon orbit instead, which would later be called “a stroke of genius.” Sending Apollo 8 up to circumnavigate the moon gave America the time it needed to figure out how to safely land a man on the moon, and all but squashed Russia’s moon landing efforts.

Finally, in 1969, NASA was ready to send astronauts to the moon. A two hour, thirty six minute moonwalk was televised to millions of Americans from a camera that was attached to the Apollo 11 lander, marking it as one of the biggest national events in American history. Though Low received many honors and credits for the Apollo project, he was little known to the public. He once remarked, “My job was never as exciting as what the astronauts ate for breakfast.”

Rensselaer fondly remembers George Low. During his eight years as president, he developed the Rensselaer 2000 planning guide, broadened new areas for technology research, and undertook many fundraising activities. One of his signature gestures, however, was serving donuts to students in the hockey line, an act which he enjoyed greatly.

After his death in 1984, his family donated Low’s NASA artifacts and memorabilia to Rensselaer, which were installed in the Low exhibit gallery on the fourth floor of the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation (CII).

This year, take a stroll through the gallery to commemorate the history behind the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing!

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Continuing Up the Hill: Russell Sage Laboratory

Russel Sage Laboratory, view from Southeast c. 1912

In 1907, Mrs. Russell Sage gave Rensselaer $1,000,000 as a memorial to her husband, Russell Sage, a New York financier, who, for ten years prior to his death, was a trustee of the Institute. Of this amount, $300,000 was contributed toward erecting and equipping a laboratory for the use of newly established courses in mechanical and electrical engineering. The balance was laid aside as an endowment for the two new departments. The Sage gift more than doubled the value of the Institute. (With a total enrollment of 485 students, Rensselaer’s annual budget in 1906 was $100,000.)  The first bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering were awarded in June 1911 (3 ME and 9 EE).

Main switch board. Generator sets. Motor generators and frequency changers

The Russell Sage Laboratory, built and equipped at a final cost of $405,000, was designed by Lawlor & Haase and constructed of Harvard brick with limestone trimmings. There were three principal sections of the building: the west wing devoted to Mechanical Engineering, the east wing for Electrical Engineering and the central section used by both departments. The central portion contained a lecture room seating 400 persons, a large drawing room and a laboratory with machines for materials testing. The building was opened for use in 1909.

Steam laboratory with valve setting engine in gallery

Department of Mechanical Engineering facilities in the upper stories of building’s west wing included classrooms, drafting rooms, and faculty offices. The sub-basement floor contained three laboratories: a steam laboratory, hydraulic laboratory, and internal combustion engine and refrigeration laboratory.

Electrical Engineering laboratory

Department of Electrical Engineering facilities in the east wing included classrooms, faculty offices and in the basement a generator plant, dynamo laboratory, storage battery and transformer rooms, an electro chemical laboratory, rooms for blueprinting and photographic work and an instrument shop.

Growing student enrollment necessitated an addition to the Sage Laboratory which was built to the north and east of the existing building. The four story addition was finished in 1923 at a cost of $235,000.

Russell Sage Laboratory was completely renovated in 1985 and currently houses the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

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A Changed World: Ode to 1919

I’ve had many wonderful opportunities as an archivist to work with exceptional students here at RPI. One such student, Noah Zucker, is graduating with the Class of 2019 this year with a degree in Computer Science. Noah recently told me that as of July, he’ll be working for Facebook as a Designer for Social Virtual Reality. I couldn’t be happier for him, and I’m so thankful to have worked with him on a large augmented reality project for the Archives, during the summer of 2017.

As an archivist I think about the classes that come and go, year after year, decade after decade. Being surrounded by 195 years of student history on a daily basis has that affect on an archivist! I’m always pondering how our students have shaped the memory of the Institute, as well as the world they’re about to enter when they leave dear old R.P.I. This year, as we approach the Two Hundred and Thirteenth commencement, I think about the students of the Class of 1919. They had a much different experience, one which was worlds apart from contemporary life today.

Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach
Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach

The class of 1919, entered the Institute in September 1915 with 180 students. Student life was marked by the usual “stuff” of college life, games and events, rushes and elections, and lectures and exams. However, college life was experienced with the backdrop of World War I an ocean away, evolving and shaping the future to come. By April 1917, the class of 1919, in their sophomore year, saw a tidal wave of change, when most of the class members that entered went in the direction of immediate military service. Adding to this abrupt change, “Seniors became privates; freshman non-coms…Drill was added to the curriculum; forty-five square feet of barracks…and a uniform of indefinite fit augmented each man’s possessions. With commencement now in plain sight, to get by and be recommended for an officer’s camp became [their] chief end in life.” Thankfully, they awoke one morning to find the war over, but of the 180 students that entered the class, only 58 graduated in 1919.

To the Class of 2019, we wish you the best of luck, and we can’t wait to witness how you change the world! Certainly there are good things to come in your future!

Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.
Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.

For more on Rensselaer and the Great War, read this post

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The Gorgon: Students’ Words Set in Stone

“Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.” – William Hazlitt, English essayist

Within the many rows and shelves of the Institute Archives and Special Collections, there is a student publication collection that caught my eye recently. Its name is the Gorgon, and, being an old English major, hearing the name first gave me pause. Gorgons, referenced in Homer’s Iliad, are monstrous women with snakes for hair. Confused on how exactly that related to a student publication, I was surprised to find that the Gorgon was a literary type of student magazine. Suddenly, it clicked. We often hear that words, once written, are set in stone, so taking inspiration from an infamous Greek monster makes sense. How does it make sense though, exactly? Well, gorgons have a special talent. They turn onlookers to stone.

The Gorgon, which ran from 1961 to 1998, was a magazine dedicated to creativity and art within the Rensselaer community. Students could submit their own creative writing and art pieces to be featured, in whatever form they wished. There are poems, translated plays, drawings, paintings, short stories, and even music compositions within the many issues. I think one of the highlights of the Gorgon, though, is the incredible cover art. Take, for example, the image below. It’s the cover of volume 33 of the publication, circa 1977. I find it to be eye catching! (Pun slightly intended).

As most things tend to do, the Gorgon changed over time. From 1961 to the early 1990’s, the Gorgon was published as a magazine. In the spring of 1993, it was published as a Polytechnic insert, and in the fall of that same year, it was printed as a poster. In the fall of 1994, the Gorgon was published as a series of postcards. It went back to its magazine format until the fall of 1996, when it was again printed as a poster. For the last two years of its lifespan, however, it reverted back to being published as a magazine. Unfortunately, time, and students, move on, and the last issue of the Gorgon was printed in the fall of 1998.

Though the publication hasn’t run for over twenty years, the Gorgon was still able to accomplish what its namesake was famous for. The students who dedicated their time to the magazine have their artistic endeavors preserved within their own collection in the Institute Archives and Special Collections. It might not be stone, but with the help of the Archives, their work has certainly become cemented in Rensselaer’s history!

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The Big Red Freakout: An RPI Hockey Tradition

What’s big, red, and is celebrated like a hockey version of Mardi Gras? That would be Rensselaer’s Big Red Freakout, of course! Started in 1978 as a way to make college hockey unique, the Big Red Freakout was an instant success. Each year, fans come to the rink saturated in Rensselaer’s signature cherry red color, ready to cheer on the men’s hockey team. The special addition to this night is a commemorative gift, known as a favor, each fan receives as they enter the arena.

The Institute Archives and Special Collections has collected many of these favors over the years, including pennants, pucks, buttons, clothing, banners, pom-poms, and other memorabilia. None, however, is as infamous as the 1987 horn.

This particular horn was given out to fans during the 1987 Freakout game against Brown, and the noise level it produced was so loud that it was credited as helping Rensselaer snag an 8-3 win over their opponent. The Brown coach was so incensed at the noise that a proposed rule change was brought to the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which resulted in the NCAA banning noise-makers from Division I hockey. This rule subsequently became known as the “RPI rule.”

This year, the Institute Archives is holding an exhibit in the Folsom library, featuring various Freakout favors throughout the decades. On display will be clothing items, cowbells, pennants, pucks, buttons, and much more…including the notorious horn! Pop on over to take a look at the collection, and to celebrate Rensselaer’s Big Red Freakout with us. Body paint optional.

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