In the spaceflight history canon, there are biographies and autobiographies that almost depict their subjects as secondary characters in their own lives (not a criticism – for example, James R. Hansen’s First Man delves into many of the central characters in Neil Armstrong’s life and career), and books that function almost as treacly love letters to their subjects (Buzz Aldrin’s Magnificent Desolation). In addition, as the previous sentence proves, many spaceflight biographical sketches focus upon astronauts’ lives (this doesn’t discount the many fine books about rocket pioneers and flight controllers, but the genre is astronaut-gaga).
Michael Cassutt’s The Astronaut Maker represents a refreshing departure in the genre, discussing a spaceflight figure who has been described as “mysterious,” controversial, and as “the ultimate insider.” While George Abbey may have not been an astronaut (alas, he did submit an application for the 1966 class), his still-ongoing spaceflight career, like it or not, shaped many decisions from the 1960s to the early 2000s. (Note: minor book spoilers included.)
The Astronaut Maker is a continuation of Cassutt’s 2011 Air & Space magazine article titled “Mr. Inside.” In a way, this book almost functions as an end to a Cassutt trilogy – the author previously co-wrote Deke! (with Mercury/ASTP astronaut Deke Slayton) and We Have Capture (with astronaut General Tom Stafford). Abbey’s leadership bookends that of Slayton’sand Stafford’s, both whose influence upon human spaceflight cannot be overestimated.
In previous spaceflight books, Abbey has been depicted somewhatnegatively; Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets and Bryan Burrough’s Dragonfly –books set respectively during the early Shuttle era and during Shuttle-Mir – depicted him as a “power monger.” It would’ve been easy for Cassutt to go one of two ways with The Astronaut Maker. The author could have turned the book into a Valentine to its subject (see Aldrin’s Desolation again), or could have turned it into Riding Rockets Part 2, a snarky condemnation of Abbey.
Instead, Cassutt just tells Abbey’s story from its beginnings, from his plebe days at Annapolis to the canceled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program, through Apollo, Shuttle, eventually leading to the current International Space Station (ISS). While acknowledging Abbey’s reputation and murmurs about his leadership (both positive and negative), the book delves into the laser-focused thinking behind many of Abbey’s biggest career decisions, including one that may have saved the ISS as we know it. Cassutt was given unprecedented access to Abbey and his family, and the book brings into clearer focus aman previously depicted as inscrutable and unknowable.
Of course, the book also delves into Abbey’s relationships with colleagues; while I won’t give away spoilers, we learn about some surprising astronaut and NASA personnel feuds, and why Abbey had less faith in some colleagues than others. This book succeeds in that it doesn’t pass judgment on Abbey, or even those he may have liked or disliked – it just tells a thoroughly balanced story about his career, and illuminates the thinking behind some of spaceflight’s fundamental program decisions.
This is recommended reading for anyone curious about the “behind the scenes” decision-making in spaceflight, and for those interested in knowing more about the quiet, yet bold man previously identified – somewhat sarcastically – as “NASA Official George Abbey” by STS-5’s Bill Lenoir during that crew’s walkout.
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Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.