Gilroy Chow: Holding Heritage Close

Gilroy and Sally Chow with their grandchildren Smith Mallory, Jack Chow and Emily Chow.

By Bryan Zhao

Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 11th, 1970. The wind blew as smoke began to billow at the bottom of the launch area. The Saturn V SA-508 began to take off from the ground, bringing the three Apollo 13 crew members: Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert into space. Gilroy Chow, one of the engineers who designed the rocket, breathed a sigh of relief. The launch into space goes relatively smoothly. Little does he know, things will go very wrong.

In fact, the NASA engineers would receive a call for help, a little over two days later. A series of critical issues had occurred, most famously including the carbon dioxide removal system. The filters in the command module were square, while the filters in the landing module were circular. Immediately, the engineers, including Gilroy worked around the clock to solve the issue. Using only the basic items on the spacecraft, and with little time remaining, the engineers successfully created a device they called the “mailbox.” Over 50 years later, Gilroy still recalls the moment: “Everyone will tell you it was a team effort; it wasn’t any one person that came up with the solution.”

Gilroy was born in the Mississippi Delta, where he currently resides. However, he spent the majority of his childhood in New York after his father got a job in the area. Being thousands of miles apart from each other, Gilroy was able to find both large and subtle differences between the two areas. The landscape of the areas were very different: Mississippi was primarily composed of fields and farmland, while New York was much more urban and contained rows and rows of houses. A subtle difference was the steel pan vs wok Gilroy’s mother used to cook fried rice with. What didn’t change, was the 24 hours Gilroy used spending time with family, in school, and pursuing his interests.

Returning back to Mississippi for college, Gilroy was very observant of the world around him. In the thousand or so freshman in Mississippi State University, Gilroy only saw a handful of Asian Americans; but even then, he fit in well with the community. Everyone enjoyed the same food: hamburgers, hot dogs, and watched sports games together. “We were just expected to get along with everybody, and we did,” said Gilroy, regarding his high school and college experience. But is assimilation the same as inclusion? Would the community have accepted him just as easily if he brought all his cultural traditions with him?

Following college, Gilroy got a job through an ad in the New York Times, searching for a manufacturing engineer. After his first few months building airplanes, Gilroy’s exemplary work got him selected to go to Florida and work at the Space Center. It was through these early endeavors that Gilroy earned a job as a NASA engineer.

During Gilroy’s time, NASA was dominated by white men, a point also brought up by the movie Hidden Figures. While Gilroy did not face any issues or problems from co-workers, he became somewhat of an unsung hero to the public. In the Apollo 13 movie, not a single Asian face appears in any of the scenes. The work Gilroy contributed is often overshadowed by other engineers who received quotes in articles at a national level, while Gilroy only saw action in local Mississippi news. Nonetheless, this does not change the gravity of Gilroy’s accomplishments.

Even after leaving his job at NASA, Gilroy continued to pursue his interest in engineering. He worked on the Sparrow Missile, a widely used medium range air-to-air intercept missile, and even created conveyor belt parts. Currently, Gilroy enjoys running the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, stating on the museum website that: “The history of Chinese in the Mississippi Delta is unique within a diverse fabric of ethnicities in this region.” Gilroy keeps his Chinese heritage close to him, whether it’s through speaking bits of Toisan, a native Chinese dialect, or growing Ku Gua (Bitter Melon), a vegetable used in a variety of Asian dishes. Gilroy uses food as a bridge to connect with his culture: Gilroy often cooks fried rice, and even showed off his skills in the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival while talking about his experiences as an Asian American in the Mississippi Delta.

“Make a conscious effort to look at your culture; we don’t want to lose that,” said Gilroy. Through moving to New York, attending Mississippi State University, working at NASA, working with conveyor belt parts, and even retirement, Gilroy has kept his Chinese heritage with him. Because without the knowledge of one’s own culture, their identity slowly begins to dissolve.

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