To watch George Abbey move through a Houston evening is like tagging along with an ex-mayor on a tour of his city—in this case the neighborhood around the Johnson Space Center, home of NASA’s astronaut corps. When Abbey enters a club, people’s heads turn. One person offers a handshake and a shared memory. Another asks a favor. Seeing familiar faces, Abbey remembers birthdays, parents’ names. He ventures opinions, none of them remotely guarded (“He’d make a great chief engineer for JSC”), then gives advice to a young engineering student hoping to study at the Moscow Aviation Institute.
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Now in his late 70s, Abbey has been retired from NASA for nearly a decade. With his hooded eyes, close-cropped silver hair, and solid build, he looks like an amiable grandfather, which in fact he is. His NASA career spanned 39 years, from the earliest days of Apollo to construction of the International Space Station. Despite working at the highest ranks of the agency, he was rarely interviewed, or even written about. When he was, it wasn’t always flattering. Abbey was characterized as dictatorial; former astronaut Norman Thagard called him “a Godfather type.” Another retired shuttle astronaut, Mike Mullane, wrote that astronauts thought of him as “a rapacious power monger.”
“George Abbey saved the space program four times,” says his former boss, legendary flight director Christopher Kraft. Richard Truly, an astronaut who became NASA’s administrator, once said, “The real book about the manned space program would be a book about George Abbey.” Another veteran astronaut calls Abbey “the best program manager NASA ever had.”
Which is it? Was Abbey some kind of space age Zelig, appearing whenever NASA needed a savior? Or a shadowy puppet master who bent administrators and astronauts to his will?
George William Samuel Abbey grew up in Seattle, watching airplanes take off from the nearby Boeing plant. Hoping to become a naval aviator, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but switched to the Air Force after graduation so he could go directly to flight school without first doing sea duty. Stationed at bases in Texas, he flew both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, including the Lockheed T-33 and North American B-25 Mitchell. Eventually he would log more than 5,000 hours of flying time.
Aircraft, though, were just a stepping stone to space. “I liked Buck Rogers” is Abbey’s simple reason. One night in October 1957, “I was driving across the northern states, probably somewhere in Montana. And I stopped to watch Sputnik cross the sky. I heard the beeping on the radio. I knew this was significant.”
A year later, he entered the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio to work on a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he was assigned to the X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane program, ending up as technical liaison at the Boeing plant in Seattle. When that project was cancelled in 1963, Abbey stayed at Boeing, working first on the Super-Sonic Transport, then on NASA’s Lunar Orbiter. Eventually, with the Apollo program ramping up, the Air Force detailed him to the space agency.
Assigned to work on the Apollo Block II (lunar version) spacecraft, Abbey got first-hand exposure to the financial, technical, and political battles between NASA’s Manned Spacecraft (later Johnson Space) Center and North American Aviation, the prime Apollo contractor. James Wetherbee, who years later would serve as deputy director of JSC under Abbey, says of this period, “North American had to make a big decision [about spacecraft requirements], and nobody from NASA would step up. George was quite junior, but he had weighed the information, and made the decision. And that’s how he got noticed.”
Soon he was working for Joe Shea, head of the Apollo spacecraft program. Still, Abbey hadn’t forgotten about Buck Rogers, and when NASA began searching for new astronauts in 1965, he applied. He failed to make it past the Air Force screening process. “The Air Force wouldn’t consider you unless you had attended the Aerospace Research Pilot School,” he says. “The Navy didn’t have that requirement. Had I been a Navy pilot, it might have turned out differently.”