GEORGE WILLIAM SAMUEL ABBEY, SR.

 

GEORGE WILLIAM SAMUEL ABBEY, SR.
Our devoted father, mentor, guidepost, and hero, George W. S. Abbey, Sr., passed away in Nassau Bay, TX on March 24, 2024, after an illness. He was 91.

He has been called the father of modern spaceflight, but we called him Dad, Grampie, and Uncle George. He was a quiet man, brilliant, humble, had a dry wit, and was very private. The world will be so much emptier without him. He had hundreds of friends and associates from all over the world who will miss him greatly. His long life was notable for accomplishments as a pilot, engineer, manager, educator, and father.

Born in Seattle, WA in 1932, the fourth child of Samuel and Brenta Abbey. He attended Lincoln High School in Seattle and graduated in 1950. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1954. It was at the Naval Academy that he met Joyce Widerman, whom he married, had five children with, and later divorced.

Upon graduating the Naval Academy, he served in the U.S. Air Force, where he became a helicopter pilot and engineer. He pursued his master’s degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Technical Institute in 1959 in Dayton, Ohio, where his first two children were born. 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 Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar Program in Seattle, Washington where his third child was born.

A pilot in the U.S. Air Force, he had more than 4,000 hours in various types of aircraft before being detailed to NASA. While his career in spaceflight began with the Dyna-Soar program in 1959, but truly blossomed with his assignment to NASA in Houston in late 1964. He would go on to make major contributions to the Apollo program before moving into leadership at the Johnson Space Center. He was with the Apollo 1 astronauts the night before the fatal fire in January 1967. He was in mission control the night of the Apollo 13 accident and organized the recovery effort.

He retired from the USAF as a Major. It was in Houston his final two children were born.

Beginning in 1976, he served as Johnson Space Center’s director of flight operations, leading the selection of America’s first Shuttle astronauts from 1978 to 1987, bringing diversity to the Astronaut Corps, with the first minority and female astronauts being selected. He oversaw the triumphant first flights in the program through to the tragic Challenger accident.

He ensured his team worked hard, but also had the opportunity to have fun, hosting an annual Chili Cook Off now in its 44th year.

In 1987 he transferred to NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C., where he served in key roles in human spaceflight, also working on The Synthesis Group, charting future paths for America’s space programs. In 1991, he 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 his leadership the council began investigating cooperation with Russia in human spaceflight after the fall of the Soviet Union that same year.

In 1992 he was named as the Special Assistant to the NASA Administrator. He returned to Johnson Space Center in 1994, first as deputy director, then as its seventh director. Johnson Space Center became the “Lead Center” for space station and space shuttle, and he had greater responsibility for America’s human spaceflight programs. His authority extended into basic decisions such as reaffirming the leadership of both programs and chairing all the Space Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews. During his time in this role, the space shuttle flew more than 25 successful missions; the joint U.S. and Russian Shuttle-Mir Program was completed, providing important information for long-duration spaceflight; and he led the development and launch of the International Space Station.

During his time as director, he signed agreements with Clear Creek Independent School District to donate land for Space Center Intermediate, and Walt Disney, donating a 123-acre site at the entrance to Johnson Space Center to become its official visitor center – Space Center Houston.

As Johnson Space Center director, he made it a point to open the center to the community and industry, hosting an annual Open House and Ballunar Lift Off Hot Air Balloon Festival which brought over 45,000 visitors through the gates to see the work done on site, He also hosted Inspection Day – where industry was invited to see technology being developed by the center. He hosted the Texas Independence Trail Ride overnight as they traveled to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

He also launched the Longhorn Project, giving local students the opportunity to learn about animal husbandry, aquaculture, and fruit and vegetable cultivation. The project cemented relationships with the local school dsitricts, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and their local Go Texan committee, and the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association.

Five years later, he became the senior assistant for International Issues at NASA and officially retired from the Agency in 2003.

Following his retirement from NASA, he became Space Fellow at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University where he wrote international space policy and held international space summits. He was a Fellow of Swansea University in Wales, located in his mother’s hometown.

In 2018 he worked with author Michael Cassutt on his biography “The Astronaut Maker”, chronicling his life and numerous contributions to human spaceflight. Home to one of only three Saturn V rockets on display in the world, Johnson Space Center honored him by naming the facility George W.S. Abbey Rocket Park. The Apollo rocket housed there is the only one comprised of all flight-certified hardware capable entering orbit around the Moon. Outside, additional artifacts from the early human spaceflight program are on display. George W.S. Abbey Rocket Park allows dreamers and space flight enthusiasts to stand beside history and is a place of wonder for visitors from all over the world.

He served as President of the Board of the Odyssey Academy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for International Space Education, board member of the Ad Astra Rocket Company, Senior Fellow on the Institute of International Space Commerce. He served on the RNASA Board of Advisors, was an Ex Officio Director, Lifetime Member and Calf Scramble Sponsor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Trustee of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington as well as served on other aerospace and educational boards and committees.

He was a founding member of the House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Clear Lake City, TX.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, he was a man of deep faith, fond of the
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, classic cars, Celtic music attending the annual festival in Lorient, fine wines, and nurturing his numerous friendships.

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.

He was the recipient of the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement’s National Space Trophy in 1997.

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

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

In 2007, a special category was included for the Sir Arthur Clarke Award which was presented by and named after him.

He received the Pioneer Award in 2014 from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

In 2015 he was named Outstanding Russian American of the Year. In 2020 he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.

Mr. Abbey is preceded in death by his parents Samuel and Brenta Abbey; sister Phyllis Abbey Williams; and brothers James Abbey, Jack Abbey, and Vincent Abbey.

He is survived by his daughters Joyce Abbey and Suzanne Fair; sons George Abbey, Jr.,
James Abbey and his wife Anastasiya and Andrew Abbey and his wife Tisha; Kyle Fair,
grandchildren Brett Fair and his wife Chandler, Evan Abbey and his wife Angelica, Lauren
Snodgrass and her husband James, Brenta Abbey, Marfa Abbey, Mark Abbey, Marta Abbey, Sam Abbey, Grant Abbey, Gracie Abbey and Olivia Abbey; three great-grandchildren Braxton, Sterling and Isla; numerous nieces and nephews, and by so many whose space careers he launched and nurtured.

A Celebration of Life is pending.

Memorials may be made to The Longhorn Project at Johnson Space Center: www.thelonghornproject.com

5 comments

  1. Fly High George!!!

    Mark A Neely
  2. Rest in peace, my dear unforgettable friend 🙏🏻 you have done the greatest support for the space international friendship!!! 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

    Sophya Tabarovsky
  3. Au revoir, George.
    You’ll be missed also on our side of the Pond.
    Very warmest regards from France where your kindness and good words will never be forgotten.
    Adieu, mon ami.

    Thierry
  4. George was truly a remarkable man, a balance between using power, and persuasion. Just unique. He commanded, but never demanded respect. He was comfortable with working through others. That is in my thinking, the best leader – articulate what you want, and let others create the result. And give the worker / architect the credit. That generates allegiance. George was a master at that. I do not see the person on the horizon that will fill these shoes.

    Funny…I find my self warmly calling him George here, but I always addressed him as Mr. Abbey. Don’t ask me to explain – it is just the respect thing. Farewell, Mr. Abbey, it was my great fortune to know you and work for you. Rest in peace, my friend!

    Tom DIegelman
  5. Always thinking of George Abbey with gratitude and respect. My deep appreciation to him personally for being allowed to be a part of the Space program. R.I.P. remarkable, Talented, distinguished and honorable Space Pioneer.

    Ludmila Nicole Dmitriev-Odier

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