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In a joking nod to George Abbey’s power over manned spaceflight, astronauts (like STS-5’s Bob Overmyer) sometimes carried his photo into orbit. (NASA)

Mr. Inside

George Abbey had more influence on human spaceflight than almost anyone in history, but few outside the field know his name.

One day in January 1976, Abbey walked into Kraft’s office and was told, “You’re the new director of flight operations.” Suddenly he was in charge of several hundred people, including the astronauts and flight directors who had just pulled off the moon landings, one of the most daring technical feats of all time.

If Abbey was intimidated, he never showed it. “I knew these people fairly well, having worked with them for a dozen years,” he says. “I came from a similar background too. I knew we could work together.” One immediate challenge was to recruit a new generation of astronauts to fly the planned space shuttle. Kraft felt strongly that the corps should be open to women and minorities, and that didn’t sit well with some of the old guard. Slayton worried about finding qualified candidates, and walked out of the first meeting at which the topic of recruiting minorities came up. “He never came back,” says Abbey.

The “Thirty-Five New Guys”—including six women—who would make up the early space shuttle crews were announced in January 1978. NASA put out another call for astronauts in 1980, and three more in the seven years following. Each time, the man overseeing the selection was George Abbey.

It was in that role that he drew the most criticism. Some astronauts complained they were never sure how they were being judged. Would Abbey mark you down for poor performance on a sim? Failure to follow aircraft flight rules? Personal behavior? Some believed, according to payload specialist Drew Gaffney, that “you had to suck up” to Abbey “to go up.”

James Wetherbee, who has heard the criticism, is “dumbfounded” by accusations of favoritism. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how to succeed,” he says. “You buried your nose in your workbooks, you talked to people, you studied the systems, you trained. If you did that, you were rewarded.”

Three-time shuttle flier Rick Searfoss says, “There were three types of astronauts…those George liked, those he didn’t, and the vast majority who were in the middle, just solid citizens. That [middle] was where you wanted to be.” If Abbey liked you too much, says Searfoss, you could “wind up with some interesting management job that would take you away from flying for a couple of years.”

While Abbey counted some astronauts as personal friends, who would get together for regular Friday afternoon happy hours, he says that never affected flight assignments. He simply matched a list of available astronauts to the schedule of missions and requirements, and that was it.

Flight selection may have been a closed-door secret to the astronauts, but on launch day, Abbey was very visible. He rode to the pad with each shuttle crew, and was standing on the runway to shake the astronauts’ hands when they landed. He and Chief Astronaut John Young held a private postflight briefing with every mission commander, to hear about any problems that might have come up, or improvements that might be made. “They wanted all the details, good, bad, and ugly,” recalls Searfoss.

When it came time to pick a shuttle crew, Abbey took special pleasure in delivering the news, often in unexpected ways. He told Robert Crippen after a routine T-38 training flight that he’d been assigned as pilot to the coveted first mission: STS-1. Sometimes Abbey would call an astronaut in the middle of some non-flight-related job: “Are you happy doing what you’re doing? Would you be interested in flying?” Often a group of five astronauts would receive separate summons to his office…only to realize on the walk over that they were now a shuttle crew.

Shuttle commander Hoot Gibson, a former chief of the astronaut office, says, “George treated us like children. He acted as though he was our father, often making decisions we would rather have made ourselves.”

About Michael Cassutt

Michael Cassutt has co-authored DEKE!, the autobiography of astronaut Deke Slayton, as well as several novels and television scripts.

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