A highly detailed history of the American space program focusing on the contributions of George Abbey (b. 1932), who held various key administrative positions at NASA.
Cassutt—a TV screenwriter and producer who has written extensively about the space program (fiction and nonfiction), including co-authoring the autobiographies of notables like astronaut Thomas Stafford (We Have Capture, 2002, etc.)—returns with a biography of Abbey that also serves as a history of the enterprise. The combined biographical material would probably fill only a chapter or so—we learn about Abbey’s background, marriage, children, and divorce, the causes of which the author doesn’t discuss—for Cassutt is principally interested in Abbey’s role(s) in NASA, which were considerable. He selected astronauts, organized the various offices around him, and displayed a phenomenal memory. He was a workaholic who earned the respect, if not always the affection, of his co-workers. (Cassutt, however, offers few discouraging words about him.) The text is consistently rich in detail, sometimes overly so. Cascades of names, abbreviations, dates, and events wash over us; as they do, our admiration for Cassutt’s knowledge and research increases as our ability to swallow it declines. He has few unkind words for anyone—though one iconic figure who does endure some disparagement is test pilot Chuck Yeager. In chronological fashion, the author takes us from Sputnik to the present, and he discusses all the grand achievements (moon landing, 1969), failures (Challenger, 1986; Columbia, 2003), and in-between moments. We get to know a bit about the astronauts’ personalities and politics, and we see Abbey’s evolving efforts to be more inclusive in the selection of personnel. As the director of the Johnson Space Center in the 1990s, “he was in charge of twenty thousand civil servants and contractors not only Houston, but in locations such as White Sands.”
Space-program aficionados will gobble the details like snack chips, and all should be grateful to see Abbey, a deserving man, step out from the shadows.