The Challenger disaster hit Abbey hard. “Apollo was bad—a shock—but Challenger was worse, because I saw it happen,” he says. He had ridden to the pad with the crew as usual, and returned to the control center assuming the launch would be postponed due to ice on the pad. He was amazed to hear that the launch was “go” anyway. He watched in horror as Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff.
“I immediately gathered the [astronauts’] families, got them off the roof of the center and into the crew quarters,” he recalls. “I was the one who had to tell them that the accident was probably not survivable.” It was a bitter time, all the more so because Abbey had never liked the idea of using solid-rocket boosters for a manned vehicle, and had not even heard of the arguments about O-ring safety at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, NASA got a new administrator, James Fletcher, who ordered sweeping changes at the Johnson Space Center. Young was replaced as chief astronaut, and Abbey was transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he soon found himself deputy associate administrator for spaceflight under former astronaut Bill Lenoir—who was not a fan. “George is an extremely smart person,” Lenoir said years later. “Very good team player as long as it’s his team and he’s in charge. Not a good team player on anybody else’s team, and I could never get him to play by my rules.”
In 1991, Abbey was detailed to the White House’s National Space Council, where he was able to advocate for NASA during a difficult period, when the shuttle was plagued by delays and the Hubble Space Telescope’s misshapen mirror had tarnished the agency’s image. The following year brought another new agency administrator, Dan Goldin, a program manager from TRW who knew relatively little about NASA. Goldin made Abbey his special assistant, and for the next two years, the pair formed a united persona privately referred to as “Chief Dan George.” It was during Goldin’s first year that Abbey made his most remarkable—and least known—political contribution.
Abbey had never been a fan of the proposed Space Station Freedom. He knew that its $8 billion price tag was unrealistic, and thought the program unnecessary. The Soviets already had a space station, Mir, and “I thought that going back to the moon and on to Mars could have been accomplished without duplicating the Soviet effort,” he says.
In 1993, with Freedom’s budget growing and its capability shrinking, President Bill Clinton asked Goldin to come up with a cheaper space station. Abbey pulled together a small “tiger team” of old Apollo hands—John Young, Tom Stafford, and Max Faget among them—who met with Goldin and Abbey in Stafford’s office in Alexandria, Virginia. Over a single weekend in April 1993, working with yellow pads and Legos, the group came up with a new modular space station. Russian modules could be used in addition to some of the ones already planned for Freedom. Phase 1 of the new partnership would be a series of U.S. shuttle flights to the Russian Mir station. Abbey’s tiger team didn’t invent the International Space Station, but, with the Russian partnership, they figured out a way to get it built. The White House approved the plan.
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.