JAMES WEBB: NASA’S ‘KOROLEV’

There’s one more key figure in the early space age, on the American side of the story, that I’ll also bet most people haven’t heard of. He doesn’t feature in our graphic novel, because we wanted to tell the story from the Russian’s point of view. Even so, so I thought it might would be interesting to talk briefly about him in this blog. Yes, von Braun designed the Saturn V, but let’s be clear, that magnificent rocket was only one part of the gigantic NASA enterprise. That clever bug-like lunar module that made the landing wasn’t von Braun’s design, and the money and the politics behind NASA wasn’t his responsibility either. So who did run NASA? Jack Kennedy made a great speech, in 1961, about sending men to the moon, but, what with him being president of the United States and having a very busy workload, he had no day-to-day involvement in the running of NASA. In fact, he wasn’t really that interested in space except as a booster to his political image.

In February 1961 Kennedy was struggling to appoint a chief for NASA. Two dozen respected scientists and business leaders turned down the job because they didn’t believe that the space business had a serious future. Embarrassed by these refusals, Kennedy turned to an unlikely character, James Edwin Webb, a 54-year-old lawyer from North Carolina with an unrivalled knack for Washington politics but little knowledge of space.

Kennedy promised that Webb could run NASA his way if only he’d take the job. Two years later, when Kennedy angrily insisted that NASA should devote itself just to the Apollo lunar landing, Webb fought back, insisting that planetary and astronomy missions were just as important as reaching the moon. Thanks to Webb, the long, slow but ultimately brilliant development of the Hubble Space Telescope began (not to mention, probes to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Webb also strengthened NASA’s network of allegiances, dispensing major equipment contracts and building new NASA ‘field centres’ in such a way that it became almost impossible for politicians to undercut him for fear of endangering jobs in their districts. By 1966 Webb held sway over five per cent of the national budget. There was disquiet in Washington when he expressed an ambitious scheme to apply NASA’s ‘space-age management’ techniques to a broader range of social concerns, such as housing, medicine, education and energy.

In January 1967 the first Apollo capsule caught fire on the launch pad, and its crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed. Webb protected NASA from congressional criticism and kept Apollo on track, but the effort cost him his reputation. His enemies accused him of corruption in his handling of space contracts. He resigned a few months before the successful Apollo 11 mission, and his name was soon forgotten by the public. Yet it was his drive and determination that enabled NASA to reach the moon, and indeed to survive into modern times as the world’s largest and most accomplished space agency.

So next time someone tells you that “money was no object” in the glory days of Apollo, it’s worth reminding them about Jim Webb, and his fierce protection of the Apollo project when it was most in danger of being cancelled. Look at today’s news stories about NASA, and you’ll be reminded just how fragile space projects are to the moods and whims of politics.

Webb and Korolev were great leaders. Von Braun was great, too—but he wasn’t the only “rocket genius” behind the space age.

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