Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October 7: James Edwin Webb

James Edwin Webb
October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992

James Webb was the second administrator of NASA, serving from 14 February 1961 to 7 October 1968.

Webb oversaw NASA from the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the end of the Johnson administration, thus overseeing all the critical first manned launches in the Mercury through Gemini programs, until just before the first manned Apollo flight. He also dealt with the Apollo 1 fire.

The planned scientific probe (launch now scheduled 2014) originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) was renamed in 2002 as the James Webb Space Telescope to honor Webb's memory.

Webb went to Washington in 1961 when he accepted the position of the Administrator of NASA. Under his direction, the agency undertook to achieve the goal set by President John F. Kennedy of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade of the 1960s through the success of the Apollo program. For seven years after President Kennedy's May 25, 1961, announcement of the goal of a manned lunar landing, through October 1968, Webb endeavored for support for NASA in Congress. As a longtime Washington insider, and with the backing of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was able to acquire continued support for and resources to accomplish the Apollo Moon landing on the schedule President Kennedy had announced.

During his administration, NASA developed from a loose collection of research centers into a coordinated organization. Webb had a key role in creating the Manned Spacecraft Center, later, the Johnson Space Center, near Houston, Texas. Despite the pressures to focus on the Apollo program, Webb ensured that NASA carried out a meaningful program of planetary exploration with the Mariner and Pioneer space probe programs.

Webb was in the leadership of NASA during the Apollo 1 accident in 1967. Webb told the media at the time,
"We've always known that something like this was going to happen sooner or later. ... Who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?"
Webb went to President Johnson and asked that NASA be allowed to handle the accident investigation, and to direct its recovery from the accident. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame, and he pledged to assign that to himself and NASA management, as appropriate. The agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, to correct problems, and to continue its progress to the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Webb reported his investigation's findings to various Congressional committees, and he took a personal grilling at nearly every meeting. Whether by happenstance or by design, Webb managed to deflect some of the backlash over the accident away from both NASA as an agency and from the Johnson administration. As a result, NASA's image and popular support were largely undamaged.

However, Webb was a Democrat tied closely to Johnson, and, with Johnson choosing not to run for reelection, decided to step down as administrator as this would allow the next president to choose his own administrator.

NASA's planned James Webb Space Telescope was renamed in Webb's honor in 2002. The telescope is referred to as "the Hubble successor".

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