When President John F. Kennedy famously declared, “We choose to go to the Moon” in 1962, few Americans fully understood how we would achieve that lofty goal, including—apparently—many NASA engineers.
“I knew nothing about space, but who did?” laughs Gerald Sandler (’56), an unassuming statistics major who became a lead engineer and program manager with the Apollo Lunar Module Program. “Even for those of us behind the scenes, reaching the Moon was like going on a vacation where you don’t know how you’ll get there and have no idea what the destination will be like!”
Despite having limited knowledge of space science, Mr. Sandler and his team ultimately overcame a wide range of obstacles to land Neil Armstrong on the Moon with Apollo 11 and achieve tremendous success with future missions. “The most important part of my career boils down to this: I was not afraid to be challenged,” Sandler explains.
After completing active duty with the Army, Sandler began his professional career working for RCA on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. He had no expertise in national defense, but his affinity for statistics and probability made him a natural fit for this incredibly complex science. “If it wasn’t for the military,” he says, “I never would have wound up with such an interesting career path.” During this time, Sandler also published the textbook System Reliability Engineering (Prentice-Hall, 1963), still in use today.
Sandler eventually joined Grumman Aerospace, which led to his taking on leadership roles in NASA’s Apollo program. Even after space exploration had ended, he continued to enjoy a long, distinguished career with Grumman, later serving as president of the Grumman Data Systems and Services Group.
Among his honors are the Albert Morris Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award; the Hirsch Award, presented by the Long Island Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE); and the Long Island Joint Engineers Achievement Award. Although technically retired, Sandler still studies the merging of business and technology and innovations in artificial intelligence, among other hot-button issues.
“My philosophy has been to just go with the flow,” Sandler says, “because you just never know where life, or your career, will take you!” Maybe even to the Moon.