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About James Edwin Webb
James Edwin Webb (October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992) was an American government official who served as the second administrator of NASA from February 14, 1961 to October 7, 1968.
Webb oversaw NASA from the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the end of the Johnson administration, thus overseeing all the critical first manned launches in the Mercury through Gemini programs, until just before the first manned Apollo flight. He also dealt with the Apollo 1 fire.
In 2002, a planned replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope Earth-orbiting astronomical observatory, originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope as a tribute to Webb.
Webb was born in the hamlet of Tally Ho in Granville County, North Carolina. His father was superintendent of the Granville County public schools. He completed his college education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received an A.B. degree in education in 1928. He was a member of the Acacia Fraternity. Webb became a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, and he served as a Marine Corps pilot on active duty in 1930–32. Webb then studied law at the The George Washington University Law School where he received a J.D. degree in 1936. In the same year he was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia.
Webb enjoyed a long career in public service in Washington, D.C., first serving as a secretary to US Rep. Edward W. Pou of North Carolina in 1932–34. He next served as an assistant in the office of O. Max Gardner, an attorney and former governor of North Carolina, in 1934–36. In 1936, Webb became the personnel director, the secretary-treasurer, and later the vice president of the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York, before he re-entered the Marine Corps in 1944 during World War II.
After World War II, Webb returned to Washington and served as executive assistant to O. Max Gardner, by then an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, before being named as the director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Office of the President of the United States, a position that he held until 1949. President Harry S. Truman next nominated Webb to serve as an undersecretary of state in the U.S. Department of State. Serving as Undersecretary of State during the Era of McCarthy, Webb was instrumental in implementing stringent personnel requirements intended to prevent suspected anarchists, communists and homosexuals from employment with the Department of State. Webb singled out homosexuals in a later report, noting "It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons." When the Truman administration ended in January 1953, Webb left Washington for a position in the Kerr-McGee Oil Corp. in Oklahoma City, but he was still active in government circles, for instance serving on the Draper Committee in 1958.
Webb returned to Washington in 1961 when he accepted the position of the Administrator of NASA. Under his direction, the agency undertook to achieve the goal set by President John F. Kennedy of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the 1960s through the Apollo program.
For seven years after Kennedy's May 25, 1961, announcement of the goal of a manned lunar landing, through October 1968, Webb lobbied for support for NASA in Congress. As a longtime Washington insider, and with the backing of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was able to produce continued support for and resources for Apollo.
During his administration, NASA developed from a loose collection of research centers into a coordinated organization. Webb had a key role in creating the Manned Spacecraft Center, later, the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas. Despite the pressures to focus on the Apollo program, Webb ensured that NASA carried out a program of planetary exploration with the Mariner and Pioneer space programs.
After the Apollo 1 accident in 1967, 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?" Webb went to President Johnson and asked that NASA be allowed to handle the accident investigation, and to direct its recovery. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame, and he pledged to assign that to himself and NASA management, as appropriate. The agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, to correct problems, and to continue progress toward the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Webb reported his investigation's findings to various congressional committees, and he took a personal grilling at nearly every meeting. Whether by happenstance or by design, Webb managed to deflect some of the backlash over the accident away from both NASA as an agency and from the Johnson administration. As a result, NASA's image and popular support were largely undamaged.
However, Webb was a Democrat tied closely to Johnson, and, with Johnson choosing not to run for reelection, he decided to step down as administrator to allow the next president to choose his own administrator.
Webb was informed by CIA sources in 1968 that the Soviet Union was developing its own heavy N1 rocket for a manned lunar mission, and he directed NASA to prepare Apollo 8 for a possible lunar orbital mission that year. At the time Webb's assertions about the Soviet Union's abilities were doubted by some people, and the N-1 was dubbed "Webb's Giant". However, later revelations about the Soviet Moonshot – after the collapse of the USSR – have given support to Webb's conclusion. Webb left NASA in October 1968, just before the first manned flight in the Apollo program.
In 1969, Webb was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson. He is a 1976 recipient of the Langley Gold Medal from the Smithsonian Institution.
Webb was a 33rd Degree member of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.
After retiring from NASA, Webb remained in Washington, D.C., serving on several advisory boards, including serving as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1981, he was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point for his dedication to his country.
Webb was married to Patsy Aiken Douglas in 1938, and they had two children: Sarah Gorham Webb (b. 1945), and James Edwin Webb, Jr., (b. 1947).
Webb died in 1992, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Webb was played by Dan Lauria in the 1998 miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon.
NASA's planned James Webb Space Telescope was renamed in Webb's honor in 2002. The telescope is referred to as "the Hubble successor". As of 2011, funding uncertainties might delay the launch to 2017 or 2018