Webb, James Edwin

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Webb, James Edwin

(b. 7 October 1906 in Granville County, North Carolina; d. 27 March 1992 in Washington, D.C.), the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), during whose tenure NASA developed the techniques necessary to coordinate and direct sending people to the Moon and bringing them safely back to Earth.

Webb was the son of John Frederick Webb, the superintendent of schools in Granville County, and Sarah Gorham. He was educated at the University of North Carolina, where he received an A.B. in education 1928. He then studied law at George Washington University (1933–1936) and was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in 1936. In 1938 Webb married Patsy Aiken; they had two children.

Webb enjoyed a long career in public service. He went to Washington in 1932 to serve as a secretary to Congressman Edward W. Pou of the Fourth North Carolina District, who was the chair of the House Rules Committee. In 1934 Webb became an assistant in the office of O. Max Gardner, an attorney and former governor of South Carolina. In 1936 Webb had become the secretary-treasurer of the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York, and he advanced to vice president before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944. After World War II, Webb returned to Washington as the executive assistant to Gardner, who was by then the undersecretary of the treasury. Webb was soon named the director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Executive Office of the President, a position he held until 1949, when President Harry S. Truman asked Webb to serve as the undersecretary of state. When the Truman administration ended in early 1953, Webb left Washington for a position in the Kerr-McGee Oil Corporation in Oklahoma City.

Webb returned to Washington on 14 February 1961 to accept the position of administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His long experience in Washington paid handsomely during his years at NASA, as he lobbied for federal support for the space program and dealt with competing interests on Capitol Hill and in the White House. His career changed fundamentally after 25 May 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States was committed to landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. For seven years after Kennedy’s announcement, through October 1968, Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. The longtime Washington insider proved a master at bureaucratic politics. In the end, through a variety of methods, Webb wove a seamless web of political liaisons that brought continued support for and resources to accomplish the Apollo Moon landing in accordance with the schedule Kennedy had announced. Webb left NASA in October 1968, just as Apollo was nearing a successful completion.

One of Webb’s most difficult challenges came in the aftermath of the Apollo 204 fire on 27 January 1967. During simulation tests on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee died in a flash fire that broke out in the spacecraft’s pure oxygen atmosphere. As shock gripped the nation during the days that followed, Webb told the media: “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?” The day after the fire Webb appointed an eight-member investigation board to discover the details of the tragedy, and to determine if it could happen again and how NASA could recover.

The members of the board quickly found that the fire had been caused by a short circuit in the electrical system that ignited combustible materials in the spacecraft fed by the oxygen atmosphere. They also found that it could have been prevented and called for several modifications to the spacecraft, including a less oxygen-rich environment. Changes to the capsule followed quickly, and a little more than a year later it was ready for flight.

Webb reported these findings to various congressional committees and took a personal grilling at every meeting. His answers were sometimes evasive and always defensive. The New York Times said that, under Webb, NASA stood for “Never a Straight Answer.” While the ordeal was personally taxing, whether by happenstance or design Webb deflected much of the backlash over the fire from both NASA as an agency and from the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. While he was personally tarnished by the disaster, the space agency’s image and popular support were largely undamaged. Webb never recovered from the stigma of the fire, and when he left NASA in October 1968, few mourned his departure.

Recovery from the Apollo 204 capsule fire took more than a year, but in October 1968 astronauts flew the Apollo system in Earth orbit. It appeared that reaching the Moon on Kennedy’s timetable was again a possibility. After retiring from NASA, Webb remained in Washington, D.C., and served on several advisory boards, including as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. He died of heart failure on 27 March 1992 in Washington, D.C.

A collection of Webb’s papers is in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, at the University of Texas, Austin, and a duplicate set is in the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., also has a sizable collection of Webb materials. An excellent biography of Webb is W. Henry Lambright, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA (1995). Webb’s NASA career, especially his relationship to Project Apollo, is recounted in several books, including Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (1979); Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (1980); Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994); John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (1970); Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985); and Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 28 Mar. 1992).

Roger D. Launius