A WELSH-American giant of space flight who played a key role in bringing Apollo 13 home and ran the whole Shuttle programme has died in the US.

Former NASA Director of the Johnson Space Centre, George Abbey - dubbed 'the father of moden spaceflight' - was a Fellow of Swansea University and promoted research and co-operation links with universities in Texas, also giving the keynote speech in 2013 at the Welsh college's annual Richard Burton Lecture.

His Welsh-speaking mother Bridget was from Laugharne, and he visited Swansea, Cardiff and her home village, where family members still live.

George Abbey at The Boathouse in Laugharne in 2013
George Abbey at The Boathouse in Laugharne in 2013. Photo: Swansea University (Swansea University)

His cousin 'Dick the Milk' was a close friend of its most famous son Dylan Thomas, who featured in his works and was a pallbearer at the poet's funeral.

And Abbey even ensured that a photo of Wales' most famous poet, from his Laugharne home, The Boathouse, was taken into space in 1998 on the Space Shuttle Columbia before returning it to go on public display.

"I thought it would be a good thing for the museum there. They would have something that had actually been in space that was related to Dylan," the father-of-five said in 2013.

‘Dylan Thomas, London, England, 1946’ by Lee Miller. @Lee Miller Archives, England 2019. All rights reserved

"If you look at his writings and what he's done for Wales, it has great significance and I think it's fantastic to have put Dylan in space."

He also revealed in 2013 that he had helped make Wales one of the most photographed nations from space, saying: “If the weather was good, I also usually tried to get the astronauts as they flew to get a picture of Wales because of my Welsh roots."

Having grown up in Seattle, he became a pilot in the US Air Force before joining NASA and taking a key part in the Apollo missions, including saving Apollo 13, for which he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon.

The Apollo 13 crew.
The Apollo 13 crew. Photo: NASA (NASA)

He worked alongside all the famous astronauts, like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Alan Shepard, and became friends with many Russian cosmonauts as well.

And he said: "You got to know the people quite well and they were dependent on you as they flew their missions and we were dependent on them to do their job right, and so you established a pretty close relationship.”

In the 1980s he became responsible for selecting the crew members that flew during the early years of the space shuttle programme and put the first woman in space.

He went over to work at the White House on the Space Council as director of civil space in 1991, and in 1996 became director of Nasa's Johnson Space Centre, becoming a central figure in the development of the international space station.

On Apollo 11 he said: "We’d been building up to it and to see it finally unfold was a real high point for everyone.”

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA (NASA)

And he added about Apollo 13: "It was a real team effort to get those people down. Luckily it all came together for us."

But there was tragedy as well, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

"Challenger was an accident that didn’t need to happen. I took the astronauts out to the launch pad before they flew and I was with the families right after it happened,” he said.

"For me, it emphasised that you’ve got to be right in what you’re doing and there is no margin for error."

George Abbey with astronauts in the 1980s
George Abbey with astronauts in the 1980s. Photo: NASA (NASA)

On his passing, NASA Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche said: “NASA mourns the loss of former Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey, a true visionary and transformational leader.”

“George’s dedication to human spaceflight remained steadfast. As the NASA family mourns his passing, we are grateful for his leadership and the legacy he leaves behind."

George Abbey at Swansea University
George Abbey at Swansea University. Photo: NASA (Swansea University)

Also paying tribute, Professor Daniel G Williams, Director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales, said: "A giant of NASA and space flight, George Abbey, who has died aged 91, was also a true friend of Wales and of Swansea University, where he was an Honorary Fellow...

"We celebrate his astonishing achievements at NASA: a career for which the word “stellar” is more than just a metaphor.

"But we also recognise and pay tribute to him for his vital role in forging Swansea-Texas links, which have led to pioneering research and enriching experiences for young people."

Fellow Welshman Tecwyn Roberts from Anglesey also played a key role in the Space Race as a flight director on the original Mercury manned flights, and overseeing the development of Mission Control and communications with the space ships during the Gemini and Apollo missions.

George Abbey's family funeral in Houston is this Saturday, May 18, followed by a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center on Friday ,June 7, where the ‘Rocket Park’ is named after him.