George Abbey (NASA)

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George Abbey
George Abbey.gif
George Abbey
Born(1932-08-21)August 21, 1932
Seattle, Washington, U.S.
DiedMarch 24, 2024(2024-03-24) (aged 91)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
  • NASA Administrator
  • United States Air Force pilot
Known forDirector of the Johnson Space Center
Joyce Widerman
(m. 1955;div. 1980)

George William Samuel Abbey (August 21, 1932 – March 24, 2024) was an American NASA administrator and United States Air Force pilot. Graduating from the Air Force Institute of Technology as an electrical engineer, he then served in the United States Air Force and the Apollo program. He subsequently became director of flight crews for the Space Shuttle, then director of the Johnson Space Center. Honors include the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, three NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the 1970 Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Early life and education

Abbey was born in Seattle, on August 21, 1932, the fourth child of Sam and Brenta Abbey. His father was born in London, emigrated to Canada, then served in World War I. Settling briefly in Laugharne, Wales, the couple moved to Canada, then settled in Seattle. [1] [2] [3]

Although his father was an agnostic, Abbey was raised in his mother's Presbyterian faith and frequently attended Lutheran church services during his high school years to be with his Scandinavian friends. [4] Abbey attended Lincoln High School in Seattle and graduated in 1950. After he graduated, he joined Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps (NROTC) at the University of Washington. [5] At the behest of his brother Vince, George applied for United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and barely passed the entrance examination. [5] He received his bachelor's degree in general science there in 1954; and a master's degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in 1959. [6]

U.S. Air Force and Apollo program

A pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Abbey had more than 4,000 hours in various types of aircraft before being detailed to NASA. While in the Air Force, he served in the Air Force Research and Development Command and was involved in the early Air Force manned space activities, including the Dyna-Soar Program. Abbey joined NASA in 1964 as an Air Force captain assigned to the Apollo program. In December 1967 he left the Air Force and was named technical assistant to the Johnson Space Center director. In January 1976, he was named director of flight operations, where he was responsible for operational planning and for the overall direction and management of flight crew and flight control activities for all human spaceflight missions. [7]

Space Shuttle

Abbey shaking hands with Astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton, as the crew of STS-51-F disembark the Space Shuttle Challenger. STS-51-F crew returning from mission (51f-s-162).jpg
Abbey shaking hands with Astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton, as the crew of STS-51-F disembark the Space Shuttle Challenger.

In 1983, he became director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, where he continued to be responsible for all Space Shuttle flight crews and JSC aircraft operations. Abbey would select the crews that flew during the early years of the Space Shuttle. [8] As director of flight operations, he put America's first woman in space when he assigned Sally Ride to the crew of 1983's STS-7. [9]

Abbey was appointed deputy associate administrator for space flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in March 1988. In July 1990, he was selected as deputy for operations and senior NASA representative to the Synthesis Group, charged with defining strategies for returning to the Moon and landing on Mars. [10]

In 1991, Abbey became senior director for civil space policy for the National Space Council, which soon altered the direction for America's space initiatives and began investigating unique opportunities for engaging the former Soviet Union to collaborate in the space program. [11]

Johnson Space Center director

In 1992, he was named special assistant to the NASA administrator. In 1994 Abbey was named deputy director of the Johnson Space Center and was subsequently selected as the JSC director in 1996. [12] [9]

As director of Johnson Space Center until 2001, he served as an integral part of the NASA Shuttle-Mir Program and provided crucial oversight, management, and guidance in the first phase of the International Space Station. [9] [8]

Abbey was opposed to the proposed Space Station Freedom because of the large cost and impracticality of the station. A small team of administrators and scientists including Abbey, John Young, Thomas P. Stafford and Max Faget were called to devise a cheaper alternative to Freedom. This team proposed a new modular space station in April 1993. He helped later enlist partner nations to share the adventure—and the costs—of implementing those plans for a permanent outpost in Earth orbit. [6]

Personal life

Abbey was married to Joyce Widerman, and had five children. [13] [14]

Following a long illness, Abbey died in Houston, on March 24, 2024, at the age of 91. [15]


2007 George Abbey Special Award GeorgeAbbeyAward.jpg
2007 George Abbey Special Award

In 2002, Abbey was selected as a distinguished alumnus of the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology. [16]

His honors and awards include the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, three NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the 1970 Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Richard M. Nixon for his distinguished civilian service in peacetime. [17]

Abbey was a senior fellow in space policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University from 2002 until his death. [8]

He was the recipient of the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement's National Space Trophy in 1997. [18]

In 1998, he was awarded the Robert R. Gilruth Award in recognition of his accomplishments and dedication to human spaceflight. [6]

In 2007, Abbey presented a special award named after him as part of the Sir Arthur Clarke Awards. [19] [20]

Selected publications

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  1. Ryall, Gemma (April 25, 2013). "The man who sent Dylan Thomas into space". BBC News . London: British Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on December 14, 2017. Retrieved March 25, 2024.
  2. McCrum, Kirstie (April 22, 2013). "Flying high: The career path that sent George Abbey soaring from his maternal home in Laugharne to Nasa". Wales Online. Retrieved March 30, 2024. His mother, Bridget Gibby, came from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire; she was working in London when she met George's father, Sam Abbey, and the couple married before moving to Seattle, where George was born on August 21, 1932.
  3. Cassutt 2018, p. 7.
  4. Cassutt 2018, pp. 7–8.
  5. 1 2 Cassutt 2018, p. 10.
  6. 1 2 3 Cassutt, Michael. "Mr. Inside". Air & Space Magazine (August 2011). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on January 20, 2022. Retrieved March 25, 2024.
  7. Bagby 2023, pp. 81–82.
  8. 1 2 3 "Statement on the passing of George W.S. Abbey, Baker Institute fellow in space policy and former director, NASA's Johnson Space Center". Baker Institute for Public Policy. Rice University. March 25, 2024.
  9. 1 2 3 "George W.S. Abbey". NASA.
  10. "Goldin names Abbey JSC director" (PDF). Space News Roundup. Johnson Space Center. January 26, 1996.
  11. "NSS Mourns the Passing of George Abbey". National Space Society . Retrieved March 30, 2024. In 1991, Abbey became the Senior Director for Civil Space Policy for the National Space Council, a NASA advisory group, working under then-Vice President Dan Quayle. Under Abbey's leadership the council began investigating cooperation with Russia in human spaceflight after the fall of the Soviet Union that same year.
  12. Cassutt 2018, p. 387.
  13. Humphries, Kelly; Ramji, Nilufar (March 25, 2024). "Press Release No. J24-008: NASA Remembers Former NASA Johnson Director George W. S. Abbey". NASA JSC Public Affairs (Press release). Houston: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Archived from the original on March 26, 2024. Retrieved March 26, 2024.
  14. Bagby 2023, p. 99.
  15. Cowing, Keith (March 25, 2024). "George Abbey". NASAwatch. Denver: SpaceRef. Archived from the original on March 25, 2024. Retrieved March 25, 2024.
  16. "AFIT Distinguished Alumni Award Winners" (PDF). Air Force Institute of Technology.
  17. Stipes, Chris (March 26, 2024). "Remembering Rice Baker Institute's George Abbey, the 'father of modern spaceflight'". Rice University News and Media Relations Office of Public Affairs.
  18. Doyson, Marianne (March 6, 1997). "1997 National Space Trophy Recipient". Rotary National Award for Space Achievement. Archived from the original on July 30, 2019. Retrieved March 25, 2024.
  19. "Sir Arthur Clarke Awards". The British Interplanetary Society. March 14, 2024. 2007 – BROHP – Charterhouse School  | April 15, 2007. Retrieved March 30, 2024.
  20. "Autumn 2007". Science Fiction news. July 15, 2007. Interface: Science and Science Fiction. Retrieved March 30, 2024.


Further reading