A Tour of Marshall Space Flight Center
Governor of Alabama George Wallace (left), NASA Administrator James Webb and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director Dr. von Braun during a tour of MSFC on June 8, 1965. Governor Wallace and Dr. Webb were at MSFC to witness the first test firing of a Saturn V Booster.
James E. Webb was the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, formally established on October 1, 1958 under the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Webb is widely known for his effective leadership during the beginning of the American space program, and particularly for his foresite in commanding the agency to keep scientific objectives as a primary concern. Under his direction NASA undertook one of the most impressive series of projects in human history with the goal of landing an American on the Moon through the execution of Project Apollo.
Webb was known to be highly supportive of science during his tenure as NASA Administrator. He worked to enhance the key role and importance of scientists by giving them greater control in the selection process of space science missions. He also created the NASA University Program, which established grants for space research, funded the construction of new laboratories at universities and provided fellowships for graduate students. The program also encouraged university presidents and vice presidents to actively participate in NASA's Space Science Program and to publicly support all of NASA's programs.
As part of an oral history project sponsored by the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, Webb recalled his conversations with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. He was quoted as saying in one transcript, "And so far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to run a program that's just a one-shot program. If you want me to be the administrator, it's going to be a balanced program that does the job for the country..."
By the time Webb retired just prior to the first moon landing in July 1969, NASA had launched over 75 science missions to study the stars and galaxies, our own Sun and home planet. Missions such as the Orbiting Solar Observatory and the Explorer series of astronomical satellites built the foundation for the most successful period of scientific discovery in history, which continues on today.
Influenced by the same exploratory spirit, the James Webb Space Telescope was named in his honor by the then acting administrator, Sean O’Keefe in 2002. The iconic new age observatory will become the masthead of the world’s combined efforts in astrophysics and cosmic exploration, much like the legacy of Mr. Webb. His steady oversight and unwavering support of NASA during its most critical period is why his name is attached to the next big thing in space.
James Webb inspired an optimism towards science, and enthusiasm for the future by ensuring NASA invested in goals of human and scientific exploration. Recognizing that in order to accomplish the goal of going to the moon NASA needed the best scientists and engineers, Webb fought hard to ensure they had a proper place in the agency.
“I think he’d be happy to have such a huge technological feat named after him. The fact that he was the power behind the Apollo Program - an enormously complex undertaking to get someone on the moon, and now here’s this ultimate state of the art observatory pushing the agency technologically in the way that Apollo did on the human spaceflight side,” said Eric P. Smith, NASA’s Program Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope Program. “The fact that we have scientists at all at NASA could be attributed to James Webb,” he added.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world's premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
Image credit: NASA
More on James E. Webb: www.jwst.nasa.gov/whois.html