From Mercury to Apollo and beyond, George Abbey was at the heart of NASA’s astounding achievements in space over the last half century. He discussed the heroic past, the conflicted present and the uncertain future of manned spaceflight with science broadcaster Dallas Campbell. Here, Alan Barker reflects on the conversation.

Where were you when Russia launched Sputnik? I was in my pram. George Abbey was driving across northern Montana, from his air force base in Texas to his home in Seattle. “I stopped my car and was able to see Sputnik coming over,” he told Dallas Campbell at a crowded session during the British Science Festival. At that moment, watching the first manmade object orbiting the Earth, he decided that he wanted to work on the space programme.

George’s route was typical of the times. All the early astronauts were test pilots: going into space was simply an extension of the faster, higher, riskier ethos epitomised by Chuck Yeager. (The Right Stuff will fill you in...) George worked on the X programme, where he met an outstanding pilot called Neil Armstrong. When the X programme was cancelled in 1963, many of the systems developed for those planes were carried over into other programmes that eventuated in the Space Shuttle – and many of the pilots went into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes. George worked with all of them, but his abiding admiration is for Armstrong. He was calm, dedicated and a good worker. In George’s elegant phrase, he had the demeanour of an astronaut.

In May 1961, Kennedy committed the US to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He needed something to counteract the disaster of the Bay of Pigs and the challenge of Gagarin’s pioneering flight. “At that point,” said George in his typically laconic style, “we didn’t know how we were going to get to the moon.” To take on this challenge, with materials not yet invented, to go to a place that we knew nothing about, in such a short period, seems, with hindsight, ridiculously gung-ho. In the summer of 1968, George Low rescheduled the Apollo programme to meet Kennedy’s original ambition, and the programme went into overdrive. Apollo 8 brought back its jaw-dropping picture of Earth from the moon at Christmas 1968. The following July, Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

At that point, wrote George later, “America’s future in space seemed limitless.” And part of that future was the Space Shuttle, a vehicle that could support Skylab and, later, the International Station.

It was also a future of cooperation – above all with Russia. Kennedy had suggested working with the Soviets at the very start, but the geopolitics of the time – and his own assassination – put paid to the idea, at least in public. But in the 70s and 80s, cooperation became more open. George spoke warmly about his Russian colleagues and played down any talk of friction. The development of a common docking system between Soyuz and Apollo not only symbolised that cooperation, but set the scene for technologies – built by 16 countries – that contributed to the ISS. “The relationship that we built up then,” said George, “provided the foundation for what we’re doing today.”

The astronauts of the Shuttle era – and, later, of the ISS – were no longer test pilots in silver suits. They were engineers, scientists and teachers, developing a culture of space and communicating it to the public. Tim Peake epitomises that culture, now digital and viral – a culture in which we can all participate in the thrill of space flight.

And that culture, George thinks, is under threat. The Americans pulled the Shuttle programme in 2011. Why, asked an audience member. “Good question,” growled George in reply. NASA is showing ever greater commitment to a Mars mission, a mission that George criticises in no uncertain terms as impossibly expensive and foolhardy. “They can’t even solve the radiation problem,” he muttered. The US now has no launch vehicle of its own: Soyuz, in Campbell’s words, is now the only bus into space. And they have no workhorse to replace the Shuttle: nothing to allow us to repair, replace or return machinery from space. Asked what he would do if he were in charge at this moment, George said: “I’d be building something with wings.”

From first to last, he’s an engineer: he wants to make things that work. And his emphasis on team work is not mere modesty. The Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by Nixon in 1970, was, he insisted, “given to the whole operations team.” The Challenger disaster in 1986 was, for him, “a breakdown of management and leadership. And you don’t want that to happen.” If he was successful in his career, he explained, it was because of the outstanding people who worked for him. “It wasn’t me, it was them.”

Alan Barker, British Science Festival Swansea, September 2016. Alan Barker is a writer and training consultant specialising in communication skills.  He is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited.