James Edwin Webb was the NASA Administrator during one of the most pivotal eras for America’s space agency from 1961 to 1968. He oversaw the build-up to the manned lunar missions and is responsible for ensuring NASA was adequately funded and supported during the Sixties. He was, however, somewhat of a reluctant hero that found himself running an agency he had previously had little interest in.
Born on 7 October 1906, Webb would go on to enjoy a long and fruitful career in public service in the Thirties and Forties as a politician and bureaucrat. In 1953, with the end of President Truman’s administration, he began to shy away from governmental roles in favour of private firms and trusts.
In early 1961, however, he received a call asking him to attend the White House to discuss the possibility of him becoming NASA Administrator. Webb was reticent; he had little knowledge of matters relating to space travel and, although he knew many of the senior figures at NASA including Hugh Dryden, the Deputy Administrator at the time, he did not feel entirely comfortable heading up a national civilian space agency. “It seemed to me someone who knew more about rocketry, about space, would be a better person,” Webb said in an interview with the Lyndon B. Johnson library on 29 April 1969.
President Kennedy, however, made it clear to Webb that this would be a job relating very much more to policy rather than rocketry, with the former being an area Webb was adept in. He accepted, and began the job on 14 February 1961. His expertise in dealing with Congress would prove crucial in keeping funds flowing while NASA shot for the Moon.
He recognised the importance to build an infrastructure within the US that would enable not only missions at the time, but in the future too. He had NASA working across the country with various industries, and it was decided that Cape Kennedy in Florida, now Cape Canaveral, would become the centre for launches. His work in this regard made NASA into the national powerhouse it is today.
Webb also fought valiantly to make sure NASA did not focus solely on landing men on the Moon. He wanted NASA to remain committed to other scientific missions, including sending probes to Mars, to keep a balance within the agency that is still apparent today. His key goal, though, as dictated by President Kennedy and later President Johnson, was to beat the Russians to the Moon. In the Sixties he stepped up efforts to make sure the goal was achieved by ordering the construction of powerful boosters – the Saturn rockets – and capable spacecraft – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – under the direction of Wernher von Braun.
But in 1967 he experienced possibly the worst moment in his career when Apollo 1 caught fire in a launchpad test on 27 January and killed its crew of three. Webb was vilified both in the press and in government, and he took much of the flak for the tragedy. Perhaps on purpose, he directed much of the criticism from NASA onto himself.
When President Johnson told Webb that he would not stand in the presidential election of 1968, Webb made the decision to also step aside and let a new Administrator come in under a new president. He left his position on 7 October 1968, just over two months before Apollo 8 would launch and take the first humans to the Moon, the culmination of a project Webb had fought so valiantly for on Capitol Hill. Webb would remain in Washington DC, working on several advisory boards, before his death on 27 March 1992.
He left NASA in a strong position that enabled them to carry out six successful manned missions to the lunar surface and, today, it remains as arguably the world’s greatest space agency. In March 2021 NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will launch, over 50 years after Webb left the agency, a lasting legacy to the man who gave NASA the foundations on which it could lead the world’s efforts to explore and understand the cosmos.
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