SPECIAL: PRE-LAUNCH BOOK REVIEW
July 18, 2018–Like many who grew up in the 1960s, I was a NASA nut. I followed every launch, and have vivid memories of the Mercury flights, the Gemini rendezvous, the Apollo moon landings, and the shuttle saga. I memorized the names of the original astronauts, and could tell you the order of flights and specs of the vehicles. I recognized the names of the flight directors and the capcoms–the men whose voices chronicled mankind’s journey into space.
But there was one person at NASA I had never heard of. Unless you worked for NASA, you’ve never heard his name either. Even after I met and worked beside his daughter for ten years, I didn’t know he existed.
His name is George Abbey.
He was the insider’s insider at NASA. Some called him The Astronaut Maker, which is the title of a new book to be released in August. I was provided an advanced copy. Even after reading it, I can’t say I know this man.
For nearly 50 years, George Abbey was involved in every aspect of NASA starting shortly after it became NASA, up through when he served as Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and to this day.
Abbey was the man who rode to the launch pad with the astronauts before every flight. He helped select them, assigned them to missions, celebrated their successes, and comforted their families after disaster. He procured funding for their training, fought battles for their safety, and moved administrators around like chess pieces on a board that few people knew existed.
The book is not light reading. It is a thorough essay on the inner workings of a government agency that most of us only knew from photo spreads in LIFE magazine and marathon coverage by Walter Cronkite. Thanks to the advent of television, we were able to share the joys of space walks, splashdowns, and walking on the moon. But those were only the pinnacles of long, slogging, costly battles of wills, egos, and personalities. It is even more amazing what they accomplished when you realize everything was improvised. No one had done any of the stuff NASA was doing. And politicians wanted it done by a certain date, under budget.
Reading through this, it is daunting how much of their lives were poured into the space program to make it happen, especially by George Abbey. He was never home, according to his daughter Joyce BK Abbey.
Joyce BK (the BK were family initials to differentiate from her mother Joyce) now oversees NASA contracts for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Ten years ago she met Brett Williams, the Fredericksburg High School teacher who developed the SystemsGo rocketry program. As a result she became involved, and now volunteers as emcee and “the voice” of mission control for the annual launches, sharing a payload of trivia and insider knowledge of NASA, the history of the space program, and status updates of vehicles that even now orbit overhead.
“We grew up in a neighborhood where everybody’s dad worked at NASA, literally right across the street from Johnson Space Center,” said Joyce BK, who still lives there. “The guy down the street was a flight trainer, and astronauts hung around at the house all the time. It was a normal part of growing up. We just knew dad was putting men on the moon.”
Hanging around with astronauts was part of George Abbey’s leadership style. He organized team-building events outside of office hours, such as tug-of-war teams for the Highland Games, chili cookoffs, or excursions to the rodeo. He loved his family. But he also considered NASA his family.
“He socialized a lot, getting them out of the management structure at the office,” Joyce said. “It nurtured relationships. He felt that was important in building a strong team.”
The book contains an incredible amount of research by the author, Michael Cassutt. Joyce BK remembers the editing sessions at the kitchen table. Her dad was very careful what went in, and insisted on accuracy and discretion.
But the narrative is rich in detail, including both light and tragic moments. Such as the time an astronaut dressed as Spiderman rappelled off the building to suddenly appear at Abbey’s eighth-floor office window singing Happy Birthday.
There was also the time Abbey flew in from Florida immediately after the Challenger explosion and herded all of the crew’s families into his home so he could shelter them from the media and arrange security.
George Abbey was the space program. Yet he shunned the spotlight. One thing Abbey never did was go up in one of the vehicles he helped shepherd to the pad. He had no regrets about that, according to his daughter.
“I think he wanted to be an astronaut, but there were so many ahead of him that waited for years to fly,” she said. “He felt he could contribute better by being a part of it outside of the crew.”
At 86, George Abbey is still working on both the history and future of the space program he loves. The U.S. Naval Academy graduate is now Senior Space Fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He develops white papers on U.S. space policy, works with schools to encourage involvement with the space program, and helps preserve oral histories and operational archives from 50 years of space flight.
Reading this book peeled off some of the layers of my boyhood memories. It is like watching the Muppets from backstage: While fascinating to know how they made the magic happen, it also diminishes the magic.
But in the end, the most impressive takeaway is there never really was any magic. It was just a bunch of hard working, passionate individuals like George Abbey, doing the best they could do, in the circumstances they were in, with the resources they were given.
And they reached the stars.
The Astronaut Maker: How One Mysterious Engineer Ran Human Spaceflight for a Generation
by Michael Cassutt
2018 St. Croix Productions, Inc.
Chicago Review Press