George Abbey had more influence on human spaceflight than almost anyone in history, but few outside the field know his name.
- By Michael Cassutt
- Air & Space magazine, August 2011
(Page 5 of 5)
In 1996, Abbey finally landed the job he’d wanted for 20 years—director of the Johnson Space Center. The ultimate staffer was now in charge of U.S. human spaceflight.
Alan Ladwig, a longtime NASA official who worked with Abbey in Washington in the early 1990s, says, “George had a reputation for being quiet—not speaking, mumbling even. I’m not convinced that wasn’t some sly-like-a-fox strategy. He could be very forceful.”
Forceful he was in his new job at JSC, changing personnel, cancelling contracts, and making numerous enemies along the way. Befitting the leader of a large organization, he played an active role in the center’s life, building relationships with local politicians and promoting social events. He even arranged with the Long Horn Breeders Association to graze a herd of cattle on a JSC field.
For all his bureaucratic and political skills, he was also involved in engineering decisions. From 1995 to 2001, among the shuttle program’s busiest years, Abbey chaired all the Flight Readiness Reviews, working through long lists of technical items before each flight. When the International Space Station faced delays due to problems on the Russian side, it was Abbey who fought for end-to-end software testing on the ground before launch. The tests uncovered a number of problems that would have been difficult to fix in orbit.
There was one problem Abbey didn’t fix, however. In early 2001, news of a $4 billion cost overrun on the ISS embarrassed the agency just as the George W. Bush administration was coming into office. Declaring that “there needs to be reform in human spaceflight,” Administrator Goldin removed Abbey from the JSC director’s post. In January 2003, Abbey left NASA for good.
Today he is a fellow at the James Baker Institute of Houston’s Rice University, where he researches and writes policy papers and arranges seminars. He takes time for travel, visiting family in Europe and attending Celtic music festivals. He’s still not afraid to speak his mind. He thinks the shuttle should have kept flying for another five years, and—always an advocate of international cooperation—believes China should be invited to join the space station partnership.
Abbey is a modest man. He doesn’t think about his legacy, and says he isn’t aware he even has a legacy. If Abbey had a credo, though, it would probably be this: Gather as much information, technical and personal, as possible. Know the individuals and the procedures. Make the decision. Dispense punishment in private. And stay out of the limelight. That’s for others.
Michael Cassutt is a novelist and television writer in Studio City, California. His latest novel is Heaven’s Shadow (Ace, 2011), a collaboration with David S. Goyer.