James Edwin Webb was an American government official who served as undersecretary of state from 1949 to 1952. Additionally, he was also the second appointed administrator of NASA from February 14, 1961, to October 1968. He was born on October 7, 1906, in Tally Ho, North Carolina, US.
Webb accepted President John F. Kennedy’s appointment as NASA Administrator on February 14, 1961, succeeding interim director Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator. Webb was in charge of NASA’s Apollo program, which aimed to achieve Kennedy’s goal of landing an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.
Webb lobbied Congress for NASA funds for seven years, from May 25, 1961, to October 1968, after Kennedy announced the objective of a manned lunar landing. He was able to get continuing support and resources for Apollo as a veteran Washington insider with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s backing. NASA grew from a loose collection of research facilities to a well-coordinated agency during his presidency. Webb was instrumental in the establishment of Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, which ultimately became the Johnson Space Center. Despite efforts to focus on the Apollo program, Webb ensured that NASA’s Mariner and Pioneer space missions carried out a program of planetary exploration.
In the aftermath of the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967, Webb addressed the press, “We’ve known for a long time that something like this would happen sooner or later… Who’d have guessed the first disaster would occur on the ground?” According to a procedure established during the in-flight accident on Gemini 8, Webb went to Johnson and requested that NASA be allowed to handle the accident investigation and recovery. The agency set forces on discovering the details of the tragedy, correcting problems, and continuing progress toward the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Webb presented the results of the inquiry board to multiple congressional committees, and he was blamed personally at practically every hearing. Whether by accident or intent, Webb was able to divert some of the blame for the tragedy away from NASA and the Johnson administration. As a result, NASA’s public image and support were largely unaffected.
According to CIA sources, the Soviet Union was preparing its own hefty N1 rocket for a manned lunar mission in 1968, thus Webb urged NASA to prepare Apollo 8 for a possible lunar orbital mission that year. Some questioned Webb’s claims about the Soviet Union’s capabilities at the time, and the N-1 was called “Webb’s Giant.” However, once the Soviet Union fell apart, additional revelations about the Soviet Moonshot have backed up Webb’s judgment. Webb left NASA in October 1968, just before the Apollo program’s first manned mission. Webb authored Space Age Management: The Large-Scale Approach (1969), based on his NASA experience, in which he offered the space program as a model of successful administration that could be expanded to meet important social issues.
Johnson bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Webb in 1969. The Smithsonian Institution awarded him the Langley Gold Medal in 1976.