So it was back to working for Shea. On January 26, 1967, the Apollo manager and Abbey visited Cape Kennedy, where the Apollo 1 crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were preparing for a launch pad test. The next day, as Shea and Abbey were flying back to Houston, the astronauts climbed into the Apollo command module. Late in the afternoon a fire broke out in the spacecraft’s pure-oxygen atmosphere, killing all three men and bringing the Apollo program to a wrenching halt.
“It was just devastating,” Abbey remembers. “A complete surprise, since it was a test, not a flight. The nature of the accident made us that much more aware that, in human spaceflight, you’ve got to get it right. You’ve got to pay attention to details, because if you don’t, people can die.”
In the aftermath of the accident, Abbey and astronaut Frank Borman worked around the clock with the team trying to determine the cause of the fire. Under the pressure and the long hours, Shea, who faced a potentially hostile investigation, began to unravel. By April, with headquarters officials worried about his mental health, Shea was asked to step down as Apollo spacecraft manager, and was replaced by NASA veteran George Low, who named Abbey as secretary of the high-level board that approved all changes to the Apollo spacecraft. With Low’s encouragement, he resigned his Air Force commission and became a NASA civil servant.
Between June 1967 and the first moon landing, in July 1969, the Apollo Configuration Control Board met every Friday, beginning promptly at noon and continuing, says Abbey, “until the agenda was completed, however long that took.” All department heads—Max Faget from engineering, Kraft from flight operations, Deke Slayton from the astronaut office, Charles Berry from medical—had to be present, along with representatives from the contractors. Abbey’s job was to take notes, synthesize them into a list of action items, and have the list ready on Saturday morning. Every important issue came to the CCB, from design of the command module hatch to the decision to send Apollo 8 around the moon. It was not glamorous work. Astronaut Thomas Mattingly first met Abbey around this time; “He was introduced to me as a secretary,” he recalls. “That wasn’t too impressive.”
Watching Low and Abbey operate, however, Mattingly realized “they had developed the perfect management system—a combination of high and low.” The boss listened to formal, top-level presentations, made decisions, and worked with other NASA leaders to carry them out. Abbey gathered the raw intel in bars and coffee shops. “George held court every night,” Mattingly says. “All he would do is ask, ‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’ [That] could give you a lot of useless information. But he recognized what was important—or better yet, what was different from what Low was hearing.
“He would take this information to Low, who would [then] ask a casual question of an engineer: ‘Hey, I’m having a tough time understanding something. Could you help me with it?’ Often, just the fact that Low was focusing on an issue was enough to make things happen and shake out the right answers.”
Under Low’s guidance, Apollo returned to flight, orbited the moon in December 1968, and fulfilled President Kennedy’s pledge to land astronauts on the lunar surface before the decade was out. In the fall of 1969, with NASA focused on carrying out the rest of the Apollo missions, Abbey became technical assistant to Robert Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center. When Gilruth retired, Abbey filled the same role for new director Chris Kraft. “I wanted George as my assistant because he knew all the center skeletons, where all the bodies were buried,” says Kraft. “I knew he could get people to do what the boss wanted.”
How did Abbey develop his network? By literally going to every building and office—whether it was engineering, accounting, or plumbing—and finding out who worked there. He took down names and got to know the individuals. No one told him to do it. “I realized that I needed to have a better idea of what the other offices did,” Abbey says.
He served as Kraft’s technical assistant for four years. He was there during the Apollo 13 crisis—he made the phone call telling Gilruth of the explosion on the spacecraft—and was part of the team that earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom for bringing the astronauts home safely. As usual, his work was largely behind the scenes; no George Abbey character appears in the Ron Howard movie. He was, in the words of Rockwell’s George Jeffs, who worked with Abbey for two decades, “the perfect staff man.”
In the lull that followed Apollo, Kraft turned to solving a long-standing problem: the astronaut office. “I had tremendous affection for Deke Slayton [the Mercury astronaut who ran flight crew operations from 1964 to 1973],” says Kraft. “But there were things I wanted done differently. Deke protected the astronauts, was not cooperative with other divisions at the center, including medical and public affairs, and was just too damn secretive about his decisions.”