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.

 

Luna 1 – The Satellite That Missed the Moon

On January 2nd 1959, at 16:41:21 UTC (22.41 local time) Luna 1 was launched from the Scientific-Research Test-Range No. 5 at Tyuratam, Kazakhstan (now named the Baikonur Cosmodrome). Launched aboard Vostok-L 8K72 three-stage launch vehicle, it was the fourth attempt at sending a payload at the moon by the Soviets. The first 3 were:

A museum replica of luna 1
A museum replica of luna 1

E-1 No.1 – or Luna 1958A by NASA. Launched 23 September 1958, 07:40. Booster disintegrated 92 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration. Was the maiden flight of Luna 8K72 Rocket.

E-1 No.2 – or Luna 1958B by NASA. Launched 11 October 1958, 21:42. Booster disintegrated 104 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration.

E-1 No.3 – or Luna 1958C by NASA. Launched 4 December 1958, 18:18. 245 seconds into flight, the core stage turboprops lost hydrogen peroxide lubricant, meaning it lost power and impacted downrange.

E-1 No.4 was only a partial failure, and therefore became known as Luna 1. Intended to impact the surface of the moon. Due to an error in timing the upper (third) stage burn time caused a near miss. After 34 hours of flight, at 3.45 UTC on january 4th the probe passed within 5,995km (3,725mi) of the lunar surface, which is about 1 and a half times the moon’s diameter. It was 320,000km from earth, travelling at 2.45km per second. It became the first man-made object to reach the escape velocity of earth. Then after missing the moon it was the first spacecraft to leave geocentric orbit and enter heliocentric orbit.

A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone
A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone

The Luna 1 module was hermetically sealed sphere weighing 361.3kg (795.9lb) with 5 antennae extended from one hemisphere; four whip antennas and one rigid antenna. The spacecraft contained a 19.993 MHz system which transmitted signals 50.9s long, a 183.6MHz transmitter for tracking purposes, and a 70.2MHz transmitter. The batteries on board were mercury-oxide and silver-zinc accumulators. Five sets of scientific equipment were externally mounted to the unit to study the journey including a geiger counter, scintillation counter, and micrometeorite detector, along with a Sodium experiment. The device on the end of the center rod protruding out the back is a magnetometer to measure the moon’s magnetic field.

The primary objectives of the mission were to:

  • Measure the temperature and pressure inside the vehicle.
  • Study the gas components of interplanetary matter and corpuscular radiation of the sun.
  • Measure the magnetic fields of the earth and the moon.
  • Study meteoric particles in space.
  • Study the distribution of heavy nuclear nuclei in primary cosmic radiation.
  • Study other properties of cosmic rays.
    Another schematic of Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1, unfortunately with russian annotations

at 00:56:20 UTC on january 3rd, 119,500km (74,300mi) from earth, the spacecraft released 1kg (2.2lb) of sodium gas. This formed a cloud behind it to serve as an artificial comet. The glowing orange trail of gas was visible over the ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star.  Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk took a photograph. This was designed as an experiment on the behaviour of gas in outer space, as well as functioning as a navigational aid helping ground control track the mission.

gas cloud of sulphur
Gas cloud photographed by Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk

Luna 1 was made of an aluminium-magnesium alloy, sealed with a special rubber. To protect the satellite, there was a cone to take the heat when passing through the dense layers of the atmosphere. When safely out of the atmosphere the cone was discarded, and the antennae unfold. On the same half as the antennas were two proton traps to find the gas components of interplanetary matter, and two piezoelectric pickups for the study of meteoric particles. The inside of the unit was filled with gas at 1.3 atmospheres, to ensure high pressurisation inside. Through the design, the high pressure allows for an air circulation within the unit. This circulation drew heat off equipment and instruments, transferring it to the shell, that then serves as a radiator.

The nose cone
A replica of the nose cone in an exhibition in 1969
How it fitted
A diagram showing how the nose and luna probe fitted

 

The Vostok-L 8K72 was a modified R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile.The R-7 rocket was designed by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, known more commonly as The Chief Designer. The 8K72 version consisted of two core stages with four external boosters. The first stage and each of the boosters were powered by a four-nozzle RD-107 rocket engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen. Total thrust was approximately 1,100,775 pounds (4,896.49 kilonewtons). The second stage used a RD-0105 engine, producing 11,015 pounds of thrust (48.997 kilonewtons). The Luna 1 was propelled by a third stage which remained attached during the translunar coast phase of flight.

Vostok on Takeoff
Vostok on takeoff with the luna 1 on board

After Luna 1 passed the moon and continued on towards heliocentric orbit, it only had a certain amount of battery power left. Because it was meant to collide with the moon it had no need for recharging. On january 5th at approximately 07:00 the radio transmitter ceased to operate at a distance of 600,000km from earth. It is still in an orbit around the sun, somewhere between mars and earth. It completes one rotation in roughly 450 days. for those who understand the terms associated with orbital mechanics here are the numbers:

  • Semi major Axis: 1.146AU
  • Eccentricity: 0.14767
  • Perihelion: 0.9766AU
  • Apohelion: 1.315AU
  • inclination: 0.01 degrees
Luna1 Trajectory
Luna 1 Trajectory

Part of the plan was to hit the moon, unfortunately it didn’t achieve that. Part of the reason was to plant 2 Soviet pennants onto the moon. They were highly durable, made from titanium with thermoresistant polysiloxane enamals, that could reportedly survive an impact with venus. Usually a few are minted to give to VIP’s and top scientists. For them, it’s similar to planting a flag. one of the pennants on this flight was a thin metal strip with the inscription “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “January 1959 January” on the other. The other pennant was spherical, symbolising the moon, each face has the inscription “USSR, January 1959,” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “USSR” on the other.

luna 1 pennant 1

Luna 1 pennant 2
The pennants on the Luna 1, that are still inside the satellite to this day.