George Michael Low was born Georg Wilhelm Low on June 10, 1926 near Vienna, Austria. His parents, Artur and Gertrude (Burger) Low, owned farm land and ran an industrial alcohol factory. In 1938, four years after Artur Low’s death, the Low family emigrated to the United States. Traveling via Switzerland and England, they arrived in in the U.S. in 1940. In 1943, GML graduated from Forest Hills High School, Forest Hills, NY, and entered Rensselaer. Originally registering his major course of study as mechanical engineering, he changed to aeronautical engineering in his sophomore year. Low was also a member of the Delta Phi fraternity and, from 1943 to 1948, served as secretary, treasurer and then president of the RPI chapter. From 1944 to 1946, he served in the U.S. Army as a topographic draftsman. He also received his pilot’s license at this time. In 1945, he became a naturalized American citizen, and legally changed his name to George Michael Low. After receiving his Bachelor’s in Aeronautical Engineering from Rensselaer in 1948, he worked at General Dynamics (Convair) in Fort Worth, TX. As a mathematician in an aerodynamics group, he conducted performance calculations for bomber aircraft. Low returned to Rensselaer later in 1948 to continue work in aeronautical engineering. He married Mary Ruth McNamara of Troy, NY, in 1949, and in 1950 received his Master’s degree.
In 1949 Low joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as an Aeronautical Research Scientist at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, OH, (later the Lewis Research Center). As Research Scientist, and later Head of the Fluid Mechanics Section (1954-1956) and Chief of the Special Projects Branch (1956-1958), Low specialized in experimental and theoretical research in the fields of heat transfer, boundary layer flows, and internal aerodynamics. In addition, he worked on such space technology problems as orbit calculations, reentry paths and space rendezvous techniques. While at Lewis Research Center, he also taught graduate-level courses in advanced engineering mathematics, heat transfer, and boundary layer theory.
During the summer and autumn of 1958, preceding the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Low worked both in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. helping to plan the scope of the new agency.
Although Low left NASA’s employ in 1976, he continued his association with the agency, offering his services as a consultant. In this capacity, he participated in such activities as Space Shuttle reviews, NASA institutional assessment meetings, and President-elect Ronald Reagan’s NASA Transition Team. The latter activity, of which GML was Team chairman, involved the assessment of NASA’s strengths and weaknesses in 1980.
In the spring of 1976, Low accepted Rensselaer’s offer to become president. During his eight years in office, he developed Rensselaer into a nationally renowned research university, broadened the Institute’s programs to include several new areas of technology and, through these programs, established Rensselaer as a setting for the cooperative interface of academia, industry and government. Low developed the concept of Rensselaer 2000 as a planning guide for the university, undertook major fund-raising activities, and oversaw the completion of such campus building and renovation projects as the Jonsson Engineering Center and the Voorhees Computing Center. Rensselaer’s ties to industry and government were physically realized in the development of the Rensselaer Technology Park in North Greenbush (1981), implementation of the Incubator Program (1981), and the establishment of new cooperative programs through the Centers for Interactive Computer Graphics (1978), Manufacturing Productivity and Technology Transfer (1979), and Integrated Electronics (1981). These Centers formed the basis of GML’s 1981 proposal to Gov. Hugh Carey to establish New York State’s Center for Industrial Innovation (CII) at RPI. The CII was renamed the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation in 1984.
Supplemental to his careers at NASA and Rensselaer, Low was involved in numerous professional activities. These included active membership in higher education organizations, industrial boards and advisory committees, and a variety of committees and organizations focusing on engineering and technology issues. Through his work with these national, state and local organizations and committees, he dealt with such issues as industrial competitiveness, productivity, technology policy, scientific communication and national security, and post-secondary school education. Among Low’s visible national activities was his chairmanship of the National Research Council’s committee to examine the operation and maintenance procedures of the Federal Aviation Administration following the 1979 DC-10 crash in Chicago. Low also served as the first chairman of the influential Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), established by the National Academies of Science and Engineering.
Low received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his leadership of, and contributions to, the space program, local and national government, and Rensselaer. Among his honorary degrees was a doctorate in engineering from Rensselaer (1969). Honors and awards included numerous NASA awards, such as three Distinguished Service Medals, as well as the Arthur S. Fleming Award (Ten Outstanding Young Men in Government) (1963), the National Space Club’s Goddard Memorial Trophy (1973), the Rockefeller Public Service Award (1974), the National Academy of Engineering Founders Medal (1978), and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art (1980). In 1984, GML received posthumously both the National Science Foundation’s National Medal of Science, and the National Medal of Freedom.
George M. Low died on July 17, 1984 at the age of 58, after a determined fight with cancer.