The Right Stuff

From left: NASA Administrator James Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Launch Center Director Kurt Heinrich Debus, President John F. Kennedy, and others at Cape Canaveral, 11 September, 1962. (NASA image)

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named James Webb as Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Only the second administrator of NASA, Webb would assume leadership of a relatively new government agency with what was then an uncertain future.

Webb was unintimidated. Back in 1930, he had joined the U. S. Marine Corps, and served as a pilot, when flying was strictly for daredevils, a matter of operating temperamental propeller-driven aircraft, performing death-defying experimental aerial maneuvers and landing precariously on wobbly wooden aircraft-carrier decks. Webb had left the Marine Corps to take a senior position at Sperry Gyroscope Company, in Brooklyn, New York, before re-entering the Corps in 1944. President Harry S. Truman then asked Webb to serve as Under Secretary of State.

When Webb accepted the position of Administrator of NASA, the now-famous space agency had been in existence for a mere three years. NASA’s many critics openly questioned the agency’s usefulness, and worried about costly accidents. But under the audacious pilot’s direction, NASA would undertake one of the most impressive projects in history, and set its sights on the Moon.

President Kennedy committed the nation to this ambitious plan in his famous May 25, 1961, “moon shot” speech. At the same time, Webb “politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington.” Using every available method, Webb forged the political liaisons necessary to sustain the program and deliver the resources needed to accomplish the Apollo Moon Landing on the schedule President Kennedy had announced.

Then, on January 27, 1967, tragedy struck. Apollo-Saturn 204 was on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center when a flash fire killed the three astronauts aboard: ”Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee.

Shock gripped NASA. As the nation mourned, Webb went to President Lyndon Johnson and asked that NASA be allowed to handle the accident investigation, and direct the recovery effort. Webb “promised to be truthful in assessing blame, and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate.” Under him, the agency set out to discover the details of the tragedy, correct problems, and get back on schedule.

Webb reported NASA’s findings to Congressional committees, and took a grilling. While the ordeal was personally taxing, Webb deflected much of the backlash from the Johnson administration. By taking responsibility for the disaster himself, Webb helped ensure that the space agency’s image, and popular support for its mission, emerged largely unscathed. He left NASA in October, 1968, just as the Apollo Mission was nearing its successful completion.

After retiring from NASA, Mr. Webb remained in Washington, D.C., where he served as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Many have credited Webb for his work on behalf of space exploration, especially for the key part he played in ensuring the eventual success of the Apollo Moon Landing. Webb is admired not just for his political skills but for the integrity he demonstrated in the final act of his career at NASA, when he put everything on the line in order to protect the essential mission of the institution he served.

When my father, Frederick Hart, sculpted a portrait of Webb, for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, he endeavored to imbue the sculpture with the quiet dignity of the faithful public servant, which Webb was, and at the same time capture something of the wild ambitions of the Marine Corps test pilot, the pioneer of aviation and space exploration.

In late 1981, having completed the clay model, my father was eager for Webb’s assessment, and that of his wife. Privately, Mrs. Webb emphasized that she thought the sculpture beautifully done, and the likeness accurate, but she confessed that her own image of her husband would always be that of a younger man. With her feelings in mind, my father went back to his clay model, and labored over last-minute changes. He reworked the eyes, adding a sparkle of youth. The change delighted Mrs. Webb, and better satisfied my father’s desire to speak to the visionary aspect of Webb’s character, and the visionary spirit of the Space Age.

Finally, in keeping with the theme of the Apollo Mission, my father added a distinctive touch: “The bust was to be cast in bronze,” he said, “but I was able to get a few grams of moon dust from the space center and that is sprinkled into the bronze, giving a very unique finished effect.”

Though Webb died in 1992, the very substance of the Moon still mingles with “The Right Stuff.”

Portrait of James Webb, by Frederick Hart. Plaster cast. (Photo by author)



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