Who Is James Webb?

Second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1961–1968

James Edwin Webb NASA portrait
James Edwin Webb was NASA’s second administrator. CREDIT: NASA. GET THE FULL IMAGE IN RESOURCE GALLERY >

James Edwin Webb (1906–1992) served from February 14, 1961–October 7, 1968 as the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was at that time a very new organization, having been formally established October 1, 1958. Presiding over such an important and complex agency called for the skills and rich experience Webb gained negotiating Washington’s political and bureaucratic scene.

Webb wasn’t a scientist or engineer. He was a businessman, attorney, and manager who had served as director of the bureau of budget and undersecretary of state under President Harry Truman. He was originally reluctant to take the job offered by President John Kennedy, assuming that it might be better handled by someone with a deeper understanding of science or technology, but Kennedy wanted someone with keen political insight and a manager’s ability to help the agency mature.

James E. Webb in Gemini Spacecraft Simulator
James Webb led the development of NASA’s Apollo missions. CREDIT: NASA. GET THE FULL IMAGE IN RESOURCE GALLERY >

Webb oversaw great progress in the space program during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He also weathered the turmoil surrounding the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three astronauts died in a flash fire during simulation tests on the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Firmly committed to getting NASA back on track after the setback, he strove to maintain public and congressional support for the program. He succeeded, helping to pave the way to future NASA successes, such as the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing, which took place shortly after his retirement from NASA. During his tenure, Webb strengthened the space science program and was responsible for more than 75 launches.

NASA’s tenth administrator, Sean O’Keefe, said of Webb, “He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we’re rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and ... the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Last Updated: May 31, 2018

Keywords: Webb Mission

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