Who Was James Webb? The Man That NASA’s JWST Is Named After

James E. Webb was born on October 7, 1906, in Tally Ho, North Carolina, and passed away on March 27, 1992, in Washington, D.C. During the Apollo programme (1961–68), he served as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States.

Early Life Of James Webb

Webb became a marine pilot after earning his degree in 1928 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He started working for the government in 1932 as a congressional assistant in Washington, D.C. He also attended George Washington University from 1934 to 1936 to study law.

From 1936 through 1944, when he re-enlisted in the Marine Corps to serve out the duration of World War II, he worked for Sperry Gyroscope. Webb served as the undersecretary of state and director of the Bureau of the Budget under Harry Truman (1945–1953). After leaving government, Truman started working for Oklahoma’s Kerr-McGee Oil Company.

As An Administrator of NASA

In 1961, a few months before President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would send a man to the Moon by the year 1970, Webb was named NASA’s administrator.

Even after three astronauts died in an accident in 1967, Webb continued to prioritize the success of Apollo and utilized his enormous political abilities to mobilize and sustain support for the mission.

As a committed student of public administration, Webb also utilized NASA as a test-bed for his theories on how to structure large-scale government initiatives to maximize advantages for the nation while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of a program’s success.

In 1968, Webb left NASA. He continued to reside in Washington, participating in a number of advisory boards and acting as a Smithsonian Institution regent. The James Webb Space Telescope is the name given by NASA to a sizable space telescope that will launch in 2018.

A Balance Between Human Space Flight

And Science Yet, many think James E. Webb, who oversaw the developing space agency from February 1961 to October 1968, accomplished more for research than perhaps any other government figure, and that the Next Generation Space Telescope should have been named after him.

Webb’s Objective

A decade of space science research that is still unmatched today was produced by Webb’s notion of a balanced programme. During his leadership, NASA made investments in the creation of robotic spacecraft that investigated the lunar environment in order to prepare astronauts for future missions.

Additionally, NASA sent scientific probes to Mars and Venus, providing Americans with their first-ever views of the alien landscape. Webb also suggested in a 1965 article that a significant NASA undertaking should be the development of a large space telescope, then known as the Large Space Telescope.

NASA had already sent out more than 75 space science missions to investigate the stars and galaxies, our own Sun, and the as-yet-unknown environment of space above the Earth’s atmosphere by the time Webb resigned in July 1969, just a few months before the first moon landing.

The Groundworks For The Advanced Space Era

The most productive era of astronomical discovery in history, which is still going strong now, was laid the groundwork by missions like the Orbiting Solar Observatory and the Explorer series of scientific satellites.

Behind the scenes, Webb also backed science. Soon after taking over the position left vacant by Keith Glennan, Webb decided to keep the same fundamental structure his predecessor had chosen for the selection of science programmes. But he made important improvements to the position of scientists.

By establishing the NASA University Program, which generated funding for space research, supported the construction of new laboratories at universities, and offered fellowships for graduate students, he gave them more power over the selection of science missions.

The programme also urged vice presidents and presidents of universities to publicly support all of NASA’s initiatives and to actively engage in the agency’s Space Science Program.

An Important Record

Given Webb’s initial hesitation to accept the job, this record of performance is arguably even more noteworthy.

The North Carolina native, an accomplished manager, lawyer, and businessman, held the positions of Director of the Bureau of the Budget and Undersecretary of State during the Truman administration.

In addition, Webb sat on the board of directors of the McDonnell Aircraft Company and served as president and vice president of a number of private businesses. When President Kennedy invited him to consider the position of NASA Administrator, he responded that he was not a scientist or engineer.

James Webb Telescope Controversy

More than 1,200 people, mostly astronomers or astronomy enthusiasts — including academics who want to use the new telescope for their own research — signed a petition earlier this year asking NASA to rename the telescope because Webb appears to have participated in the expulsion of homosexuals from government jobs while he was in the public service, including while holding a senior position in the U.S. State Department.

They make reference to evidence like the questioning of NASA worker Clifford Norton, who was let go in 1963 while Webb oversaw the organization. The letter claims that “the historical record is already clear: queer people were persecuted under Webb’s leadership.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire who co-wrote an article calling for the telescope to be renamed, says that Webb’s track record is “at best, complicated.” And in the worst case, we’re essentially just launching this magnificent instrument into space with, in my opinion, the name of a homophobe on it.

She adds that Norton was detained for engaging in homosexual activities, questioned by police, picked up by NASA’s chief of security, and interrogated there.

“I haven’t seen evidence that Webb knew about this incident,” she says. “But I think we have two options here: Either he was a wildly incompetent administrator and didn’t know that his head of security was interrogating employees in NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on and he was in some sense party to overseeing the interrogation of someone for being gay.”

NASA’s Response To Controversy

NASA began a study “to assess Webb’s position in government” in response to the scandal, but the organization has provided no additional information regarding how that examination was carried out or who reviewed its results — other than to say that historians were engaged.

Senior science communications officer Karen Fox told NPR in an email on Wednesday that “we’ve done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts.” “Those efforts failed to produce any proof for a name change.”

Prescod-Weinstein is more concerned about the lack of transparency. “I have to admit that I’m worried about their decision to keep this quiet, she says.” She claims that given the facts that have already been publically publicised and her identity as a Black queer person, she wishes the agency to explain its justification.

“I’m basically a NASA fan girl,” says Prescod-Weinstein, who adds that she is a member of multiple NASA collaborations and was in a NASA postdoctoral program. “And so this is particularly hard for me, to feel like I’m being gaslit by the agency that I have spent my career looking up to, and that I have committed parts of my career to.”


During the Apollo mission NASA employed 35,000 people and hired more than 400,000 contractors from dozens of businesses and academic institutions across the country.

The CIA worked under Webb’s leadership to complete one of the most remarkable missions in history: sending a man to the moon before the decade was up.

When announcing the rebranding of the upcoming space telescope, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said, “It is appropriate for Hubble’s successor to bear James Webb’s name. He made it possible for us to see the spectacular scenery of space for the first time.

He led our country on the earliest exploratory expeditions, bringing our fantasies to life. In fact, he helped NASA lay the groundwork for one of the most productive eras of astronomical discovery.

Therefore, with the aid of the James Webb Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope, we are currently rewriting the textbooks.”

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