The Astronaut Maker

Book shares story of NASA employee who was behind the scenes

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 of. Unless you worked for NASA, you’ve never heard his name either. Even after I met and worked beside his daughter for 10 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 by Chicago Review Press. 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 amazing how much of their lives were poured into the space program to make it happen, especially by 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 an amazing amount of trivia and insider knowledge of NASA, the history of the space program, and status updates of vehicles that even now orbit overhead.

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