Abbey graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1954, and then served in the Air Force, amassing 4,000 flight hours. He earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1959. Abbey first worked with 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 NASA Houston Director. Abbey received the Medal of Freedom for his work during the Apollo 13 disaster. In January 1976 he was named Director of Flight Operations, and in 1983 Director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate. In these positions he was in charge of astronaut selection and training throughout the early shuttle program.
An opaque bureaucrat with no obvious management ability in the opinion of many astronauts, he used uncertainty and secrecy to maintain his position in NASA's byzantine management structure. Abbey seemed to run the astronaut selection process - crew selection, and even deciding when additional astronauts would be hired, and how many - free of any constraints by other NASA managers. He provided no feedback to the astronauts, except by way of rumors that he favored or was opposed to various projects.
NASA management was changed after the Challenger disaster in 1986, but only after a "decent interval", when there could be no suspicion the changes were retribution for the disaster. Abbey didn't leave Houston until 30 October 1987. Even then, despite playing mind games so devastating that many astronauts sought psychiatric counseling, he was kicked upstairs to NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
The astronaut's feelings were not held back at the departure party. The master of ceremonies, astronaut Mark Lee, reminded the gathering "if you feel a lump in your throat, and you're getting all misty-eyed thinking about George leaving -- just remember what an a--hole he can be". Some scores were settled, but other said not to write Abbey off, he wouldn't be finished off until someone had driven a stake through his heart.
Sure enough, once at NASA Headquarters, Abbey ingratiated himself with Dan Goldin. Abbey was appointed Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Flight at Headquarters in March 1988. In July 1990, he was selected as Deputy for Operations and senior NASA representative to the Synthesis Group, charged with defining NASA's go-nowhere strategy for returning to the Moon and landing on Mars. In July 1991, Abbey was appointed Senior Director for Civil Space Policy for the National Space Council in the Executive Office of the President.
After Goldin became NASA administrator in 1992, he selected Abbey as his Special Assistant. As feared by the astronauts, in 1994 Goldin sent Abbey right back to Houston, as Deputy Director in 1994 and then Houston Center Director in 1996. Abbey had reached what was probably the most important position at NASA. There he reigned until February 2001, before finally being sent up to Headquarters again as "Senior Assistant for International Issues". Goldin's departure in November 2001 and the Columbia disaster in 2003 finally set the stage for Abbey's retirement on 3 January 2003.
While he played such an enormous and key role in shuttle operations, he was so nondescript that one newspaper story ran a picture of him with the caption "unidentified NASA official greets astronauts". NASA Administrator O'Keefe's comments on Abbey's retirement seemed intentionally ironic: "George is a demanding leader who rarely accepts compromise … His ability to motivate and inspire his staff to work harder and smarter helped NASA write much of its human space flight history. His devotion to the success of America's space program is unquestionable and I wish him the best."
Birth Place: Seattle, Washington.