There are not many people who know off the top of their head who James Webb is, even many lovers of space may not know who he was. Yet they are about to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into space to replace Hubble. James Webb wasn’t an engineer, or a physicist, or even really an academic; he was a lawyer and politician. He turned a small government research department into an organisation that had links to almost every state, and had control of 5% of the US federal budget. Webb’s NASA controlled the jobs of half a million workers across America, and he introduced new working practices and management techniques that are still used today.
If you were to go out and read the biographies of the astronauts, or histories of spaceflight, Webb doesn’t really come up. He was portrayed as just a bureaucrat in Washington, funnelling orders down the chain, living the politician life. In this new age of spaceflight, we see the Apollo years as some sort of poetic story, with NASA being the figurehead of the battle to win space against the evil russians. In 1961 though, America did not follow this narrative, nobody in America cared about space, least of all the brand new president, John F Kennedy. When he set up his first reshuffle of the cabinet they simply could not get anyone to run NASA, they asked 18 high level politicians, and everybody said no, space was a dead end job, and NASA was just a collection of squabbling mission centres. Eventually, JFK’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson suggested Jim Webb, a guy who had worked under the Roosevelt administration and had some experience with private businesses. When asked, by JFK personally, Webb agreed to run NASA, as long it was the way he wanted it. JFK, desperate for an administrator gladly agreed.
There had been heavy opposition to the idea of manned spaceflight. Up to this point, the head of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, Jerome Wiesner, had issued a critical report on project mercury. Kennedy, as a senator he had openly opposed the space program and wanted to terminate it. Kennedy put his vice president LBJ as the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council because he had helped create NASA, but it was mainly to get him out of the way. Although Kennedy did try and reach out for international cooperation in space in his state of the union address in January 1961, he got nothing from Khrushchev. Kennedy was poised to dismantle the effort for space, purely because of the massive expense.
He began his NASA administration on February 14th 1961. A month later on April 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Reinforcing some fears that America was being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union, America suddenly cared about space. Kennedy made a U-turn and space sped to the top of the list. This lead to Kennedy making his famous speech on May 21st where he spoke those famous words “we will put a man on the moon before the decade is out”. Kennedy wanted to take lead in the space race. Suddenly, putting a man on the moon was the number one priority.
This meant that James Webb just got handed the opportunity to run the biggest single project the country had ever seen. Webb was told to go back to his engineers and figure out how much it will cost to get to the moon. His engineers came up with the number of $10 billion (a scary big number in the 1960’s), and sheepishly told Webb, expecting to be told to make cuts and slashes to the plan. Instead he told them to go higher, because he knew problems would come their way, and extra money will need to be spent, so they come back with the figure of $13 billion. Webb accepts the number, and goes to congress and tells them he needs $20 billion over the next 7 years. Jaws hit the floor, but he used this political knowledge to get a huge amount of leverage.
The key leverage he had was jobs, and he knew it. At its height, NASA employed half a million people in some form, that’s roughly the number of people living in Wyoming. The two biggest investments were in Cape Canaveral, FL and Houston, TX. The most controversial was the Manned Spaceflight Centre in Houston, donated by Rice University. Originally based in Langley Virginia, and named the Space Task Group, the senator didn’t care much for space. The entire operation was moved to Houston, LBJ’s home state. It was central, and had good universities surrounding it. There were many Texas based representatives in the space political landscapes at that time, such as Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
One thing that Webb understood was what NASA needed to run. He implemented a very flat organisational structure, with very few middle managers. Webb was the very top, controlling Washington. He also had the head of NACA (precursor to NASA) Hugh L. Dryden as an associate director. He had overseen the development of the x-15, and understood the technical needs of Apollo. Also Robert Seamans, also an associate director, acted as the general manager of NASA, and oversaw the everyday running of the program. Using a team of people, each with their own particular strengths helped NASA, especially in the early growth years, much more so than any one of them could achieve on their own.
Part of what James Webb did, to the dislike of congress, was to invest in academia, specifically universities. $30 million dollars a year was put into the Universities Development Fund. A fund designed to help students get into engineering, and to develop talent, skills, and academics that could not only work for NASA, but help the science behind it. As it was taken from a fund that congress had no control over, the money continued to help 7000-8000 students a year get through university at a time where NASA needed engineers. Webb believed that NASA was more than just the one shot to the moon, and frequently fought with the presidents on that fact. He wanted NASA, and space exploration to benefit science, engineering and even society. He believed that this project could fix other problems not even related to space, such as poverty and disease. The management style of NASA, and the way these big projects were handled showed the impossible could be achieved. He frequently lectured on this subject, and universities became an important part of NASA.
There was huge pressure from washington to spend all of NASA’s budget purely on the Apollo moonshot. Webb was instrumental in making sure that NASA and spaceflight was more than that. be made sure other projects like the Mariner and Pioneer space programs happened, and that JPL still functioned even with a terrible track record at the time. At the time, the academic community worked with NASA, in large part because of the importance Webb put on furthering science. Webb would frequently lecture at universities, and teach about the management styles that made NASA was. Unfortunately, some in Washington didn’t care for the extra spending, especially the states that did not have a mission centre or any of the major manufacturing plants located there. So when the Apollo 1 fire happened, there were a small group that were willing to use it as a way to make changes.
The Apollo 1 fire was a very unfortunate accident, and a national tragedy. For some, it highlighted some major problems with the Apollo program and how it had been run by the major contractor North American Aviation. Committees were set up, and Webb suddenly went from running NASA to trying to defend it. During the inquests, NASA still ran, it continued to fix problems and aim for the moon. This was because James Webb was there defending it. Left to just take the heat, some believe (me included) NASA’s funding would have been significantly cut, and we may have never got to the moon. Webb stood up in Washington and fought hard for the continuation of the project, defending the decisions that his team had made. At the end of it, he had used up most of his political sway, and called in so many favours that NASA was safe for the time being, and that Apollo was possible.
At this point, Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, Webb felt that he should step down to allow Nixon to choose his own administrator. On October 7, 1968 he stepped down from office. To put that into perspective, Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20th, 1969, barely a year later. Webb went on to be a part of many advisory boards and served as regent for the Smithsonian institute. He died in 1992, and was buried in Arlington National cemetery.
This post was inspired by reading the book: The Man Who Ran The Moon by Piers Bizony. For anyone interested in the subject of how Webb actually made his dealings, and a much more detailed account of how NASA became what it is, I recommend this book. He also did a Lecture on Webb that I found on YouTube where he tells the story really well.