September 22, 2020
A&A mourns the passing of George Jeffs, one of our most extraordinary alumni and a legend in the aerospace industry from the Apollo missions to the development of GPS satellites. His good friend George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center, declared, “You can count on the fingers on one hand the people who really got us to the Moon. George Jeffs is one of those five.”
In a 2011 interview, Jeffs reported that “I used to make model airplanes like a lot of kids do, and I used to see Bill Boeing fly over Queen Anne Hill [in Seattle] in late afternoons with the sun shining on an orange airplane, and I wanted to do that.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in the department in 1945, Jeffs became a Navy pilot in World War II, and two years later began his career at Rockwell International, in the company’s Aerophysics Laboratory. He returned to the UW to get his master’s degree in aeronautics in 1948. At Rockwell he rose through the ranks quickly, becoming successively section chief of Advanced Engineering; section chief of Systems Engineering; manager of Corporate Technical Development and Planning; vice president and program manager of the Paraglider program for NASA’s Gemini Program; and corporate executive director of Engineering. In 1980 he was named president of the company.
Jeffs is widely recognized as one of the chief architects of the accomplishments of the United States in space. He directed Rockwell's Space Division's Apollo command and service module (CSM) program through nine lunar missions, as well as playing key roles in subsystems including the hatch, environmental controls, communications, and propulsion systems. He also directed three Skylab missions and the joint USA-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In addition, he led the company's efforts on the Space Shuttle Program.
Jeffs once remarked that seeing Apollo in action was a highlight of his career: “It was a thrill in the precision of everything working in the way it was supposed to work. It was workhorse off the pad. It did everything it had to do during the boost phase. It was a ballerina in space. A ballerina! A ballerina and a wonderful work station and a hypersonic flying marvel on re-entry.”
Professor Emeritus Adam Bruckner voices the importance of Jeffs’ professional and personal legacy, saying, “George was a giant among our alumni and in the aerospace industry. He was a larger-than-life individual, who will be greatly missed, not only by his family, but also by his many colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and everyone who ever had the honor of knowing him.”
Jeffs was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as part of the Apollo 13 Mission Operations team in 1970. His leadership in developing real-time management responsiveness led to the resolution of critical flight problems during the mission that converted “a potential tragedy into one of the most dramatic rescues of all time.” At the UW, he was named the 1980 A&A Distinguished Alumnus, was awarded the UW’s highest alumni honor of Alumnus Summa Laudate Dignate in 1985, and received a College of Engineering Diamond Award in 2011 for distinguished achievement in industry.
George Jeffs passed away on May 25, 2019, at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife, Enid, and children, Georgia Marie, James, and Bill.