Baker Institute’s Abbey tells inside story of leading NASA in new biography

As the director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in the 1990s, George Abbey was in charge of 18,000 civil servants and contractors.

A new biography of Abbey, the senior fellow in space policy at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, details not only this time at the height of his profession, but how he rose through the ranks over an almost 40-year career at NASA.

George Abbey pictured in Baker Hall’s Doré Commons. Credit: Jeff Fitlow

Abbey joined the agency in 1964 as an Air Force captain assigned to the Apollo program and transitioned to management. He served as the director of JSC flight operations for the early space shuttle missions and eventually became the center’s director.

“I didn’t have a job I didn’t enjoy,” Abbey said recently.

“The Astronaut Maker: How One Mysterious Engineer Ran Human Spaceflight for a Generation” was written over several years by Michael Cassutt in cooperation with Abbey. Cassutt is a TV screenwriter and producer who has written extensively about the space program, both fiction and nonfiction, including co-authoring the autobiographies of astronauts Thomas Stafford and Deke Slayton.

The 480-page book, published by Chicago Review Press in August, is also an expansive history of the American space program that highlights Abbey’s essential contributions to the lunar missions and the space shuttle. In chronological fashion, Cassutt takes the reader from Sputnik to the present and discusses the grand achievements (the 1969 moon landing), tragic failures (Challenger, 1986; Columbia, 2003) and human moments.

Abbey oversaw the selection of every astronaut class from 1978 to 1987, deciding who got to fly and when. He was with the Apollo 1 astronauts the night before they died in a launchpad fire in January 1967 and was in mission control the night of the Apollo 13 accident. He also played a major role in the development of the International Space Station and establishing the United States’ partnership with Russia.

It was, as Cassutt’s book shows, an awesome journey for the man born in Seattle in 1932 to parents who had emigrated from the United Kingdom.

Abbey is quick to share credit.

“Surround yourself with good people,” he said. “You’re not going to get the job done by yourself. I was very fortunate, I worked with a lot of good people. That made the job much easier.

“Don’t select people that agree with you all the time,” he said. “Select people that will disagree with you and aren’t afraid to tell you no. No one is going to be right all the time.”

Cassutt highlights Abbey’s advocacy as the person responsible for selecting and training of astronauts, recruiting women (including the nation’s first woman in space, Sally Ride) and minorities. Abbey’s most significant legacy, Cassutt concludes, was at the human level — making “spaceflight available to all, regardless of citizenship, gender, color or ethnic background.”

“We wanted to bring in the best qualified, but we also wanted to bring in a representative workforce that really represented the country,” Abbey said. “We did that for the engineers, scientists and the people in the administrative jobs as well as the astronauts. We particularly tried to work with the universities and school districts to help get young students excited about science and engineering careers.”

Connecting the JSC to its surrounding communities was a priority for Abbey.

“I reached out to the city of Houston and the state of Texas and had open houses every year at the center,” he said. “One year, we had 400,000 people visit our open house in one day. We had people flying in for it. Also, I reached out to the Texas State Fair and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and (we) had a presence there.”

Among Abbey’s most visible legacies at the center is the Longhorn Project, 60 acres of JSC land where several dozen longhorns roam as part of an agricultural educational program with Clear Creak Independent School District.

Looking to the future in space

At the Baker Institute, which Abbey first joined as a senior visiting fellow in 2001, he oversees hosting of the annual International Space Medicine Summit. The event organized with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas A&M University gathers leading physicians, space biomedical scientists, engineers, astronauts and cosmonauts from space-faring nations for discussions concerning the research needed to address the medical and biomedical challenges spacefarers experience on long-duration spaceflight.

Together with Baker Institute colleague Jason Lyons, Abbey also oversees the institute’s Moscow Summer Intern Program, which sends students from Rice and other U.S. universities to the Youth Space Center at Bauman Moscow State Technical University every summer.

Abbey is a close observer of space policy developments, such as President Donald Trump’s December 2017 directive to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

“If we’re going to continue the human exploration of space, it should be done with international cooperation,” Abbey said. “As we look to the future and going back to the moon, which I think is a very good objective, and certainly important to do before you start talking about going anywhere else, we should do it with international cooperation. We should bring in as partners other countries that would like to participate in the program, just as we are working with our international partners to operate the space station.

“I’m hopeful that will come to pass,” he said. “I’m not too enthused about putting a space station in orbit around the moon. You don’t orbit a space station that’s already there. I hope that rather than do that, we will go directly to the moon and establish scientific research stations, much like we have done in the Antarctic.”

Abbey’s advice for aspiring astronauts today has not changed significantly since NASA’s early days.

“First of all, you’ve got to get the right educational background,” he said. “Get a degree in science or engineering and then also try to find a position where you can get the kind of experience that would correlate with the kind of work you would do as an astronaut.

“You want to get operational experience working in an environment where there’s stress and show that you can perform and work well as a member of a team. Those are attributes that serve you well as an astronaut.”

For more information about the biography, visit–the-products-9781613737002.php.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.