TCS Daily


The Lunar Bureaucrat

By Kenneth Silber - July 5, 2006 12:00 AM

In 2013, NASA is scheduled to launch a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope. The planned telescope, unlike Hubble and various other space instruments, is not named after an astronomer or physicist. James E. Webb (1906-1992) was a bureaucrat -- and a master bureaucrat, at that. He was NASA's second administrator and the man who shaped the agency as the 1960s space race ran at fever pitch. He was a desk jockey who put a man on the moon.

Despite the honor of having an orbiting telescope named after him, Webb has received less attention than he merits from historians and journalists. A valuable corrective to this deficit is a new book, The Man Who Ran the Moon: James E. Webb, NASA, and the Secret History of Project Apollo, by Piers Bizony (Thunder's Mouth Press). Bizony takes a nuanced view of the pioneering NASA leader, highlighting Webb's formidable achievements and capabilities without overlooking the missteps and question marks of his career.

Webb exemplified a style of government that had its heyday in the 1960s -- centralized, technocratic and expansive. His career illustrates both the potential and the limitations of such government. Webb built NASA into an organization of impressive efficiency and esprit de corps, one that proved capable of sending astronauts to the moon (and doing so "before this decade is out," the deadline set by President Kennedy). Yet Webb himself stepped down in October 1968, months before the moon shot, following criticisms and hints of scandal. And he faced growing skepticism that his vision of large-scale "Space Age Management" could serve as a broader model for dealing with humanity's problems.

Webb was born and raised in North Carolina, served in a Marine aviation squad, and became a lawyer. He emerged as a canny political operator in New Deal Washington, brokering an agreement between government and airlines over airmail service in 1934. During World War II, he worked as an executive at defense contractor Sperry and then coordinated radar operations in the Marines. Webb served as budget director and then Under Secretary of State in the Truman administration, before moving to Oklahoma at the instigation of Senator Robert Kerr to run a subsidiary of oil company Kerr-McGee.

Tapped to run NASA in the early days of the Kennedy administration, Webb accepted with reluctance the leadership of what was then a fairly small agency with an unclear future. But several months later, Kennedy decided upon a moon mission, and Webb's responsibilities expanded rapidly. Webb delegated wisely, relying on aides to compensate for his lack of engineering experience while insisting on careful planning and coordination. He was an adept wheeler-dealer, spreading spending around the country to bolster political support. He had a down-home quality, talking in his southern drawl about the astronauts' "capsoole."

Webb's last two years as NASA chief were tough ones. The death of three astronauts in a command module test in January 1967 brought heightened congressional scrutiny of the Apollo program, including the hostile grandstanding of a young Senator Walter Mondale. Attention gradually shifted from the fire itself to questions about the selection of the contractor that built the module, North American Aviation, and then to various shady activities involving a company that provided snack machines at North American's plants. Although Webb was not implicated in anything illegal, a Senate report obliquely criticized him for a lack of candor in discussing NASA's contracting relationships.

Politically weakened, Webb stepped down as the Johnson administration drew to a close, handing NASA's reins to his deputy, Thomas O. Paine. Webb watched as a spectator in the Florida bleachers as his crowning achievement - the Apollo 11 mission - took off for the moon. In his post-NASA years, Webb practiced law and held a senior post at the Smithsonian Institution. He also wrote and lectured, but his ideas about the merits of large-scale bureaucracy already had become obsolescent. It was increasingly evident that not all technical problems, let alone economic and social problems, could be solved through Apollo-style programs. The moon, as Bizony notes, was a well-defined goal.

At NASA, meanwhile, Webb's successors had difficulty living up to his legacy. The Nixon administration made drastic cuts in manned space exploration, and the agency never again played as central a role in American politics and culture as it did during Apollo. Plus, managers of Webb's caliber are rare. Bizony speculates, plausibly, that Webb would have brought clearer thinking to the chaotic decision-making that characterized NASA's development of its space shuttles and International Space Station. And, he argues, someone of Webb's tenacity will be needed if the Bush administration's plan for a return to the moon is going to maintain political support over the next decade.

Kenneth Silber is a TCS contributing writer who focuses on science, technology and economics.

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2 Comments

China Moon
Scientist: China plans moon walk by 2024
AP, June 19, 2006

China plans to place an astronaut on the moon's surface by 2024, a top Chinese scientist was quoted as saying in a Hong Kong newspaper.

The announcement by lunar program vice director Long Lehao shows long-term preparations are moving ahead for the country's ambition space exploration program, which went into overdrive following China's first successful manned space mission in 2003.

Named "Chang'e" after a mythical Chinese moon-inhabiting fairy, the lunar program will get underway with the launch next spring of a 2-ton moon orbiting satellite, Long was quoted as saying in Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po on Monday.

The space walk will be preceded by the landing of a robot explorer on the moon's surface in 2017, he was quoted as saying.

http://www.forbes.com/home/feeds/ap/2006/06/19/ap2825963.html

I think it will be sooner
More like 2014 than 2024. They could do it by then. Easily.

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