G. David Low, 52: Cerebral Astronaut Flew on 3 Shuttles

Astronaut G. David Low followed his father's vision for space exploration, then became a vice president of Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp.
Astronaut G. David Low followed his father's vision for space exploration, then became a vice president of Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. (Courtesy Of Nasa)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

G. David Low, 52, a NASA astronaut who served on three space shuttle missions before becoming a space industry executive, died March 15 of colon cancer at Reston Hospital Center. During his 12 years as an astronaut, he logged more than 714 hours in space while circling the Earth more than 540 times.

In June 1993, Mr. Low was payload commander aboard the Endeavor, launched to recover the free-flying European Retrievable Carrier. Four days into the mission, his third spaceflight, Mr. Low and fellow astronaut Peter J.K. "Jeff" Wisoff ventured outside the spacecraft, where they worked for five hours and 50 minutes.

Frank L. Culbertson, a fellow astronaut and good friend who also walked in space, said he knew what Mr. Low must have been feeling as he left the "cozy comfort" of the Endeavor and stepped into the vacuum of space.

"You have butterflies," he said. "You know that everything that's keeping you alive is contained within that spacesuit, and you make sure that everything you do, you do very carefully."

Culbertson said that Low was almost fanatically well prepared, whatever the task. "He would study something to death before he got involved with it," Culbertson said.

On his first flight into space, an 11-day mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia three years earlier, Mr. Low carried with him a pair of 159-year-old socks that had belonged to Ezra Cornell, founder of the university that bears his name. (Mr. Low had received a master's degree at Cornell.)

At 33, he was the youngest crew member on the mission and, at 5 feet 9 and 145 pounds, the skinniest. That made him the obvious candidate for an experiment in which he would cram himself into a vacuum container designed to force blood from the upper body, where it accumulates during weightlessness, into the legs. Scientists hoped the transfer of fluids downward would reduce the fainting sensation astronauts experienced back on Earth.

Mr. Low -- described by United Press International in 1990 as "an intense young astronaut, a man not given to frivolity" -- said he had a primary objective on his first flight: "I guess I'll be very, very happy if we can get the wheels stopped and I haven't screwed anything up. That would be a tremendous relief, to go through 10 days and know that I did it right."

The rookie crew member had a legacy to uphold. His father, George M. Low, was a former NASA director who was the first to suggest to President John F. Kennedy in 1960 that an astronaut could walk on the moon within the decade. The elder Low, who died in 1984, also directed the Gemini and Apollo missions.

"He's still the yardstick that I use to measure most things in life," Mr. Low said in the 1990 interview, "from how you handle yourself to how you treat other people."

George David Low was born in Cleveland and, as a sister recalled, declared to family members at age 9 that he would be an astronaut.

He graduated from Langley High School in McLean in 1974. He received a bachelor's degree in physics and engineering from Washington and Lee University in 1978, a bachelor's in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1980 and a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University in 1983.

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