Bob Gardner Jr and Mardi Gardner Sossaman
August 20, 2020

How the Space Race Powered a Caltech Scholarship

Bob Gardner Jr. and Mardi Gardner Sossaman are following in their parents’ footsteps with a new $5 million gift to endow the Gardner Family Scholarships.

Robert Gardner (BS ’36) loved a difficult problem. In fact, one of the reasons he valued his Caltech education was its emphasis on understanding basic principles and their application to problem solving, skills he turned to throughout his career as he tackled complex engineering problems in oil drilling and aerospace.

It was thus of little surprise, when, in the 1950s, as the U.S. and the rest of the world set their sights on going to space, Gardner seized the opportunity to turn to a new area of focus: America’s need for metal bellows, a kind of flexible tube that keeps a space vehicle’s fluid lines sealed despite the extreme temperatures, pressures and vibrations that occur during rocket launches and space travel.  Gardner knew that such components would be in high demand as the U.S. built more rockets to try to win the race to the moon. In the decades to come, the company he built, Gardner Bellows Corporation, would answer that demand, constructing components for many spacefaring missions, and Gardner’s two children, Bob Gardner Jr. and Mardi Gardner Sossaman, would also become involved in the business.

“Our father’s undergraduate studies at Caltech in the 1930s just catapulted him into his career,” Bob Jr. says. Because of that experience, Bob Sr. and his wife, Winifred, later chose to support future generations of students by helping to provide access to a Caltech education through the funding of undergraduate scholarships. During their lifetimes, they endowed the Robert I. and Winifred E. Gardner Scholarship Fund and the Robert I. and Winifred E. Gardner SURF at Caltech. The SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program provides several hundred undergrads each year with the opportunity to conduct research with experienced mentors; Mardi says Bob Sr. was particularly proud to support this initiative given his tenacity for tackling new challenges.

Now, as they celebrate their retirements, Bob Jr. and Mardi are following in their parents’ footsteps once more by giving to the Institute that shaped their father’s life and, ultimately, their own. They directed a new $5 million gift to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign to endow the Gardner Family Scholarships for undergraduate students, which they felt would make a lasting impact on the future of the Institute. Undergraduate scholarships, like the one created by the Gardner family, help support the Institute’s need-blind admission practice by providing the necessary funds to meet 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need. Caltech’s admission process excludes applicants’ financial resources from the decision-making process, helping to ensure the Institute is able to bring in the most talented students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Bob Gardner Sr. and Winifred Gardner
Bob Gardner Sr. and Winifred Gardner

From Public Works to Building a Business

Bob Sr.’s own journey was all the more surprising given the circumstances in which it began; when he graduated from Caltech in 1936, the U.S. was mired in the Great Depression, and there was little work to be found. So, he signed up for the Works Progress Administration, the government program that undertook public works projects. After that, Bob Jr. says, “he got a job with Richfield Oil Company, working for a guy who hired engineers from Caltech and MIT, and just told them to ‘go solve the problems.’” Although Bob Sr. had never worked on oil derricks or drilling, he set his problem-solving mind to the task.

After World War II had ended, Bob Sr. took on consulting work in the burgeoning aerospace field. But his ultimate trajectory was not set until he decided to start his own business rather than build machines for others. The timing could not have been better: the same year Bob Sr. started Gardner Bellows, 1958, was the year NASA was created. He had been unimpressed by other companies that sought to design bellows by trial and error. And so, instead, Bob Sr. created an analytical framework through which Gardner Bellows could predict the performance of each of its design components. The Gardner firm built bellows for all of the launch vehicles for the Apollo program that ultimately put astronauts on the moon after a series of groundwork-laying robotic missions led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA. “With President Kennedy throwing down the gauntlet to go to the moon, there was a lot of work in his little niche field,” Bob Jr. says.

In the 1980s, when Bob Jr. and Mardi joined the company, Gardner Bellows built parts for the space shuttles, a task Mardi calls a “dream job.” The highly technical nature of designing bellows was too specialized for larger manufacturing firms, a fact that allowed Gardner to thrive in this space for decades. “The thing that distinguished our company was that it wasn’t just a manufacturing company,” Bob Jr. says. “It was primarily an engineering company, but with an integral manufacturing facility, which could solve these difficult design problems.”

“Our father’s undergraduate studies at Caltech just catapulted him into his career.”
- Bob Gardner Jr.

The Biggest Impact

Although Bob Sr. passed away in 2009, Bob Jr. and Mardi, who also have bequest intentions to Caltech, kept the firm running until just two years ago. When Gardner Bellows Corporation ceased operations, the siblings distributed half the retained earnings to the employees. The other half came to Caltech. The goal, to maximize the impact of their support through scholarships that would bring great minds to campus and free those minds to focus on innovative research.

In addition, Bob Jr. says, the new Gardner Family Scholarships will allow him and Mardi to see the impact of their gift during their lifetimes by meeting the students who, in the coming years, will be awarded the Gardner scholarships.

Bob Jr. and Mardi’s support will be a continuing tribute to their father, who learned how to figure out engineering problems at Caltech and also how to explain his work and challenges to people in other disciplines. “Dad was able to do things engineering-wise that other people just couldn’t do,” Bob Jr. says. “And he knew that came from his experience at Caltech.”