Why James Webb Was so Important

NASA Administrator James E. Webb
NASA Administrator James E. Webb. This was his official NASA photograph

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.

shaking hands with JFK
President Kennedy shakes hands with NASA Administrator James Webb

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.

The space Council
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, center) presides over a meeting of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

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.

Kennedy Talking to Congress
MAy 1961, Kennedy proposes landing a man on the moon to congress. LBJ and Sam Rayburn sit behind him.

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.

Johnson Space Centre
Manned Spaceflight Centre, Texas, one of the biggest employers in Texas for a long time. with over 3000 federal workers, and 100 buildings

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.

Webb in a Gemini Trainer
Webb in a Gemini Trainer

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.

Launch_Complex_34_Tour
Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Kurt Debus, and President John F. Kennedy receive a briefing on Saturn I launch operations

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.

Closeup of James E. Webb, National Aeronautics and space administration

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.

Webb presents NASA’s Group Achievement Award to Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt H. Debus, while Wernher von Braun (center) looks on

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.

 

The Abandoned Buran Launch Site

So on my recent search for history on the Buran Shuttle, I came across this blog post. Although I had to use the Wayback machine to see it, it shows some great shots of the place where the Buran Shuttle used to launch.

Signpost

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The images show the way that the test site has been left to rust away. Although still obviously a launch site, the stone is breaking, and the machines obviously havn’t been used in a long time.

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As you can see, there is still rubbish piled up, remains of old vehicles, and random scrap metal everywhere. Almost like everyone just up and left. If you have read any of my other posts on the Buran, you will know that is basically what happened. Around 1993, the USSR crumbled and the Buran shuttle programme was left behind. This is why this launch site is still like this, and why urban explorers can go out and take pictures.

On top of this, they found a few other things, including an actual Buran shuttle. Although not a working version, more of a prototype, this shuttle shows how it probably would have looked back in the day. I believe this is the version found at the Gagarin museum in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, close to the launch site found in these pictures. This one is on display to the public, and was refurbished in 2007.

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The last thing that they found was a large machine. More specifically, the machine used to transport the Shuttle to the launch site. A colossal platform, that could move the shuttle and the solid rocket boosters needed for the flight. Unfortunately it was only ever used once in 1988, the only BUran flight ever. So it hasn’t seen much action. It was different to the USA’s Crawler-transporter because it was pulled by 5 diesel trains.

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The Abandoned Buran Wind Tunnel Test

airfield-7

40km Southeast of Moscow in the back corner of Zhukovsky International Airport, there is an an interesting remnant of the space race just left to rot. These are a set of 15 pictures taken by Aleksander Markin on this Flickr album. It shows a 1/3rd scale model of the Buran Orbiter. According to Markin, the replica is made almost entirely out of wood, and was used as a wind tunnel test when developing the aerodynamics.

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When the Buran shuttle program fell into disarray, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these prototypes and test were just left behind in the change. In the intervening years, they have been left the rot. Many shuttles and tests have been found by urban explorers, but many are still out there. In another recent post I talk about a similar Buran prototype left to rot away in an impressive warehouse. You can find that post here.

The Buran Warehouse

So browsing the internet recently, I came across a great blog by Ralph Mirebs. He classes himself as an urban explorer and photographer. In this blog post, he has some awesome photographs that he has taken in an abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is currently the only place where astronauts can be sent up to the International Space Station. They get sent up via the Soyuz rocket, after the USA’s Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Now the European space agency, and NASA both use this launch site to send up astronauts. On the subject of the space shuttle though, one hangar in the Cosmodrome holds some great pieces of history, captured by Mirebs in photographic form.

The Hangar

The hangar in question is knows as the MZK building. Designed by the Izhevsk Institute “Prikampromproekt”, the building is 132m long, and 62m high. Its fairly run down now, but in it’s day it was at the pinnacle of the Soviet space effort. The doors on the front measure 42m by 36m. Big enough to transport the rocket systems needed for the project. On top of that, these doors were perfectly sealed, so the building could be kept at a higher than normal pressure, to keep dust out. They weren’t really doors, they were just structures that just happened to move.

the massive doors

The building itself is fairly close to a heavily used launch site, so naturally it was made from a special form of steel, and was designed to withstand a rocket exploding on the nearest launch site. There are offices and laboratories on either side, four stories high. They hold testing equipment and controls. Inside the main part of the building are 3 cranes that are able to lift 400 tons each.

the 400 ton cranes

So what is this enormous secret Soviet era building holding? Well it houses 2 Buran class rockets, of only a few left in the world. The Buran programme was the Soviets reaction to the NASA’s space shuttle system. Although the Buran programme didn’t really take off (if you’ll pardon the pun!) it still holds some historical significance today. The reasoning behind the Buran system will be saved for a later post.

Looking at them, you would be forgiven for thinking that these weren’t really important. They have years of bird poo and dust covering them. Of the two ships in the hangar, one is the second flying prototype. Known as “little bird”, although never officially named. At the time that the Buran programme finished in 1993, it was about 97% ready. Unfortunately, the ship is now showing signs of wear, with the heat tiles falling off, and smashed windows. This ship started to be built in 1988, and was meant to fly in 1991 and 1992; with planned flights to the Mir space station.

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The second ship is known only as OK-MT, simply made as an engineering mockup. It has the same look, and shape, but was never designed to fly, it was for use by engineers to test functions on the ship, so they don’t accidentally break the real thing. This one was a mockup for the other ship, known as OK-1k2, which was the only Buran calls shuttle to have the red bars on the cargo bay. This one seems in better condition, still holding onto many heat tiles, and most of it’s windows.

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Unfortunately, most of the insides of the shuttles have been torn out, likely salvaged to be used on other projects. Some think they could have been salvaged for precious metals. Although it is a bit of a mess there is still a quality about the way it looks. A ship that was so close to being a massive part of the space age, and missing out by just a few years. Imagine if the Chief Designer had these ideas a few years before, these ships could have been the way we send astronauts into space.

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It is sad that these pieces of equipment are just the remnants of the late Soviet Union, just left to rot. Hopefully one day they will end up in a museum, along with the other important parts of the space race era. Until then, we can only use these pictures to get a glimpse into the Buran Shuttle.