George Abbey Dies at 91

George Abbey Dies at 91

George Abbey, another NASA legend, died yesterday at the age of 91 following an illness. His death comes just one week after the passing of former astronaut Tom Stafford and a month after former astronaut and NASA Administrator Richard Truly passed away, all marking the end of an era. Abbey was not an astronaut, but as director of flight crew operations decided which astronauts got to fly and when. His influence on the agency went far beyond that over many decades as an advisor at NASA Headquarters, Director of Johnson Space Center, and Senior Fellow at Rice University after his retirement.

George W. S. Abbey. Photo credit: Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Born in Seattle, Abbey graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1954 and received a master’s in electrical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology in 1959.

As an Air Force Captain in 1964, he was assigned to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center — now Johnson Space Center — and for nearly 40 years Abbey and NASA’s human spaceflight program became almost synonymous.

Three years after arriving at NASA, he supported the investigation into the January 27, 1967 Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil “Gus” Grisson, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee and then led efforts to make the Apollo spacecraft safer, becoming technical assistant to the Center Director.

As Apollo ended and the space shuttle program began, he was named director of flight operations in charge of astronaut training and mission operations support for shuttle atmospheric and orbital test flights. He also was in charge of selecting new astronauts, including the first group to include women and minorities in 1978.

In 1985, he became Director of the new Flight Crew Operations Directorate, just before the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy that killed five NASA astronauts — Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik — and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe and Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Gregory Jarvis.

In his book about Abbey, “The Astronaut Maker,” historian Michael Cassutt said that was a dark time for Abbey. In a 2018 interview with the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, Cassutt pointed out that Abbey had hand-picked the crew including his “two closest friends on the astronaut team,” Onizuka and Smith. “The loss of Challenger and its crew was devastating for Abbey” and he was “angry at NASA’s flawed decision-making.”  Overall he described Abbey as living up to his reputation as “sly, cunning, immensely powerful in terms of individuals he knew,” but also “funny, expansive, and talkative. … a “big hearted family man and, from what I heard, a valuable friend.”

George Abbey, Director of Flight Crew Operations (in back seat), and John W. Young, Chief of the Astronaut Office, preparing to leave Ellington Air Force Base in Houston in a T-38 aircraft for Kennedy Space Center, Florida for the launch of STS-41B Mission. (1 Feb. 1984). Credit: NASA

In 1989, Abbey moved to NASA Headquarters as Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Flight. Like former NASA astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford, who just passed away last week, Abbey became closely involved in George H.W. Bush’s National Space Council to execute the Space Exploration Initiative to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars. Abbey was the senior NASA representative to Stafford’s Synthesis Group developing innovative, cost-effective strategies to achieve those goals.

Adm. Richard Truly, who also recently died, was NASA Administrator at the time, but in April 1992 was replaced by Dan Goldin. Abbey became a special assistant to Goldin aiding in the transition from President Bush to President Clinton, but in 1993 returned to JSC. Cassutt reported that Goldin “fired” Abbey, but he returned to JSC as Deputy Director and in 1996 Goldin appointed him Director.

Abbey was JSC Director from 1996-2001 and retired from the agency in 2003. He then became a Senior Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Today Vanessa Wyche, the current JSC director, called Abbey a “true visionary” who “demonstrated transformational leadership” and whose “dedication to human spaceflight remained steadfast.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew on the shuttle flight just before Challenger as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, characterized Abbey as an “exceptional” leader.

Former astronaut Scott Kelly, whose twin brother Mark was also an astronaut and is now a U.S. Senator (D-AZ), also praised Abbey on X today.


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