George W.S. Abbey, the Baker Botts Senior Fellow in Space Policy at the Baker Institute, was the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center from 1996 to 2001. His association with NASA dates to 1964 and includes posts as NASA's director of flight operations and director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate.
As the Baker Institute fellow in space policy, Abbey works to advance international collaborations in space and help define strategies for safe travels to Mars and beyond. The International Space Medicine Summit, held at the Baker Institute every year since 2007, attracts more than 150 scientists, engineers, astronauts, cosmonauts and educators from space faring nations for high-level discussions about the physical and psychological challenges of long-duration spaceflight.
Abbey reflects on his long personal and professional relationship with Neil Armstrong, who died on Aug. 25, 2012, at age 82:
Not only will the nation miss Neil Armstrong, but the world will miss him, and I will miss him.
Neil was the personification of America's dreams for space exploration. Yet today, the future of the United States' human spaceflight program is one of uncertainty and doubt. With the space shuttle grounded, U.S. access to human spaceflight is dependent upon another nation. The developments underway for continued human spaceflight are yet unproven and years away. At best, they will return us to a capability to fly in Earth orbit that we had more than 40 years ago. The nation and Neil deserve better.
I first met Neil Armstrong more than 50 years ago. We were working together on the Dyna -Soar Program, the X-20. It was the next step beyond the X-15. The X-20 was a winged vehicle much like the space shuttle, only much smaller. It was to fly in orbit and return to Earth landing on a runway. Neil was one of the seven pilots assigned to the program -- of three NASA pilots and four Air Force pilots, Neil stood out. He was already flying the X-15 at that time. Neil not only had a great love for flying and for aeronautics but also a great appreciation of the engineering challenges associated with the expansion of the flight envelope that was being accomplished by the X-series of research aircraft.
In later years, he may have had a reluctance to speak about his flight to the moon but he thoroughly enjoyed speaking of his research flying experiences. He enjoyed teaching young students at the University of Cincinnati about aeronautics. His demeanor, quiet manner and his technical understanding of the subject set him apart. When he spoke, his comments were well thought out and significant.
When I was told by my boss George Low, the manager of the Apollo spacecraft program, that Neil was to be the commander of Apollo 11, I felt they couldn't have made a better choice. Neil represented the very best of this nation. He fully understood the complexity and technical challenges of successfully flying a research flight in the X-15 or a flight to the moon and his humility always portrayed that.
When Neil walked on the moon 43 years ago, on July 20, 1969, America's future in space seemed limitless. Just eight years earlier, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy had appeared before Congress to say "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before the decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
By Christmas Eve of 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders were circling the moon. And less than seven months later, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. The United States had not only achieved the goal set by President Kennedy, but had a bright future in space. Five more successful landings on the moon were to follow, and then Skylab the first space station. The space shuttle program was initiated before the last lunar landing was completed in December 1972.
Although the contrast between those exciting days and now is striking, Neil will always represent the vision, curiosity and will that put Americans on the moon. He is lasting reminder of what was, and still can be.