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Who was James Webb?


Leading NASA Into Space
While Webb wan no longer helming NASA when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the lunar surface, he deserves a great deal of credit for the success of the mission.
While Webb wan no longer helming NASA when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the lunar surface, he deserves a great deal of credit for the success of the mission.
© NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

As the new director of NASA, Webb worried his employees. He wasn't a space geek or engineer. He was, however, a masterful planner and motivator.

He reengineered NASA from a loose confederation into a more tightly managed and focused group -- no small task for a sprawling organization comprised of more than 30,000 people plus hundreds of thousands of contractors.

President Kennedy made his famous promise for a manned lunar landing in May 1961. From that point on, Webb's main goal was to land an American astronaut on the moon before the Russians.

Yet notably, in spite of sky-high challenges of the Apollo missions, Webb continued work on other aspects of space exploration, including the Pioneer and Mariner programs. All of these programs saw significant advancement during his oversight.

Webb was well-known for his stubbornness, but he had a firm grasp on effective personnel management and picked up on engineering details, too.

His political might was substantial. He conversed frequently and frankly with the president. And when called before Congress (a frequent occurrence) he alternately impressed and bamboozled political foes.

Those skills came in particularly handy after the Apollo 1 accident in 1967, in which three astronauts died in a cabin fire during a rehearsal. Webb survived the finger pointing from Congress, and just as important, kept the Apollo program on track.

He resigned in 1968, only three days before the launch of Apollo 7. Although he wasn't officially in charge of NASA when the Apollo 11 mission delivered the first humans onto the surface of the moon, he's fully credited with guiding the organization to its most glorious moment.

After he resigned from NASA, Webb took up a few other jobs and projects with organizations such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian. He developed Parkinson's disease but ultimately succumbed to a heart attack.

In honor of their most stalwart leader, NASA named a huge project after him: The James Webb Space Telescope. This is unique in that it breaks the NASA convention of naming ventures after scientists, rather than administrators, but Webb's vision to do more than just put the U.S. on the moon – to foster the organization's investment in science and research beyond that one huge goal – was incredibly impactful.

Projected for a 2018 launch, the JWST is considered the successor to the Hubble Telescope and could lead to all sorts of new insights into how our universe works -- a fitting tribute for a man who worked his hardest to reach the heavens in all sorts of new ways.