SP-4223 "Before This Decade Is Out..."


Chapter 1

James E. WEBB


NASA Administrator James E. Webb seated in the Gemini rendezvous and docking simulator during an August 7, 1965 visit to the Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973). (NASA Photo S-65-28481.)

NASA Administrator James E. Webb seated in the Gemini rendezvous and docking simulator during an August 7, 1965 visit to the Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973). (NASA Photo S-65-28481.)



[1] James Edwin Webb was the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, serving between 1961 and 1968. During his tenure, NASA developed the modern techniques necessary to coordinate and direct the most unique and complex technological enterprise in human history, the sending of human beings to the Moon and bringing them safely back to the Earth.

Born on October 7, 1906, in Granville County, North Carolina, he was the son of John Frederick and Sarah Gorham. Webb was educated at the University of North Carolina, where he received an A.B. in Education 1928. He also studied law at George Washington University and was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in 1936.

Webb enjoyed a long career in public service, coming to Washington in 1932 and serving as secretary to Congressman Edward W. Pou, 4th North Carolina District, chairman of House Rules Committee, until 1934. He then served as assistant in the office of O. Max Gardner, attorney and former governor of North Carolina, in Washington, D.C., between 1934 and 1936. In 1936, Webb became secretary-treasurer and later vice president of the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York, before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944. After World War II, Webb returned to Washington and served as executive [2] assistant to O. Max Gardner, by then undersecretary of the Treasury, before being named as director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Executive Office of the President, a position he held until 1949. President Harry S. Truman then asked Webb to serve as undersecretary of state. When the Truman administration ended early in 1953, Webb left Washington for a position in the Kerr-McGee Oil Corp. in Oklahoma. Webb's long experience in Washington would pay handsomely during his years at NASA, where he pressed for Federal support for the space program and dealt with competing interests on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

James Webb returned to Washington on February 14, 1961, when he accepted the position of administrator of NASA. For seven years after Kennedy's 1961 lunar landing announcement, through October 1968, James Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. The longtime Washington insider proved a master at bureaucratic politics. In the end, through a variety of methods, Administrator Webb built a seamless web of political liaisons that brought continued support for and resources to accomplish the Apollo Moon landing on the schedule President Kennedy had announced. He left NASA in October 1968, just as Apollo was nearing a successful completion.

After retiring from NASA, Webb remained in Washington, D.C., serving on several advisory boards, including as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. He died on March 27, 1992, in Washington, D.C.



[3] Editor's note: The following are edited excerpts from an original interview with James E. Webb, conducted on May 15, 1969, in Washington, D.C., by H. George Frederickson, Henry J. Anna, and Barry Kelmachter. Original interview available in the NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, Washington, D.C.



Could you give us some idea of how the concept of project management [for Project Apollo] was developed within NASA and how they implemented it?

. . . In a way my own experience added a different element to that of Dr. [Hugh L.] Dryden [NASA deputy administrator] and of

Dr. [Robert C.] Seamans [NASA associate administrator]. The three of us together had a better knowledge than most of how you could get large projects successfully accomplished. We had a clear understanding that you weren't going to get the end result with a contract-you had to solve the technical problems. We knew we had to have the contracting relationships with industry and the research grant relationships with university scientists and engineers, but we also had to have the in-house technical capability to monitor those contracts and grants and to provide the leadership dynamics to modify all or any part of these factors whenever feedback showed they should be modified. When experts were saying the job was too big for the country, that there were not enough scientists and engineers to do it, we had a sufficient knowledge of the capabilities of the country to know the job could be done if we effectively used these capabilities.

. . . We wanted industry to learn to do research and development under conditions where there would be no large production contracts to follow. This was a major educational job with respect to American industry because the trend had been to come in with a beautiful brochure, obtain the R&D contract, and then work out any problems that developed with little regard for efficiency, knowing that a production contract would follow on the current or another system and they'd make up any losses. In NASA, we weren't going to have the money to make up any losses because we weren't going to have any large production contracts, so our contractors had to learn to do R&D and to accept government men [4] with knowledge as close collaborators in a new pattern for developing and applying technical solutions to problems.


We spoke with project managers and asked what was most critical in their day-to-day work and we got a pretty uniform judgment. With a project like Apollo, a highly mandated program, they said schedule. Their response was "I've got to meet my schedule with as much performance as I can get to that schedule, but I've got to meet that schedule." Regarding cost, there response, in general was that: "I feel I've been well enough funded to do virtually what I have to do." Do you concur with that kind of general attitude?

Not completely. This was an attitude that we fostered from the top, but we always kept a foot handy to the brake and a knowledge of when it might be needed, and we wouldn't let that get out of hand. It was not out of control. There are many cases where there is a tendency to do this in a mechanical way and in NASA they were stopped cold by top management who said you've got to do it a different way.


So as long as they [the contractors] are meeting schedules with adequate performance, NASA would continue to support them?

No, it is not a question of just adequate performance. My attitude was if you have 200 project managers who were adequate, you should still remove 10 percent of them every year to keep the pressure on them to do better.


From your standpoint, what were your toughest problems? Did you worry most about the technical problems or the administrative ones?

Personally I didn't because we had other people to make the critical judgments on technical things. I kept an overview of how I thought the various units were doing with respect to using good technical judgment. I knew that when Dr. Seamans went out to the centers and contractors to personally look at the hardware and [5] reach a technical as well as overall judgment, that his judgment would feed into the circle of Dryden, Seamans, and myself. I knew that when people were talking to Dryden about technical matters of grave concern, he would inform Seamans and me. I knew that when industry executives came to tell me of their concerns, I would pass these on to Dryden and Seamans, as well as others who had a need to know. I guess my way of thinking about it was related more to which matter is causing the gravest concern, rather than what is the precise technical margin required for success. We were risk takers and had to be to get the job done.


Relating to project management, we frequently found project managers talking about their relations with the Center Directorate and came away with the feeling that there are important differences between Houston [home of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973] and Huntsville [home of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC)]. Is this true?

Sure. And there are important differences within Huntsville. The care and feeding of Huntsville as an organization capable of spending a billion, eight hundred million dollars a year, with a large part of it going outside, are very different than a project manager who wants to get one stage of one booster done. The question of how Huntsville wants to approach the building of a family of boosters and how Houston wants to approach the flying of a family of manned spacecraft are two different things.


Would you characterize it any further than that?

Yes, I'd say that in an organization like NASA, there's a certain element of lack of consideration of the total problem on the part of every specialist. At one point, some felt that Wernher von Braun [director of MSFC] and his people didn't fully understand the pilot-confidence element of flying men in our first high performance, marginally adequate, rocket-propelled craft like the X-15 or the Mercury spacecraft. [Robert L.] Gilruth [director of the....



NASA Administrator James E. Webb, second from right, touring Marshall Space Flight Center with President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and other guests on September 11, 1962

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, second from right, touring Marshall Space Flight Center with President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and other guests on September 11, 1962. (NASA Photo)


....Manned Spacecraft Center] and others tended to feel that unmanned booster concepts shouldn't govern, that the requirements contributing to pilot confidence should be the paramount object of attention. These are natural human problems that arise and you get better results with a certain amount of competition and fighting for these different points of view. I wouldn't have wanted to change that. Many good results came from this. Where did we get Eberhard Rees [one of Wernher von Braun's chief lieutenants at MSFC] to send out to North American [an aerospace corporation located in southern California] to ride herd on the Block 2 Apollo? From Huntsville, not Houston.


The job of headquarters is to kind of umpire this thing and monitor it and control it?

I don't like the word umpire. I think positive leadership is more important. To keep it under reasonable control but also not [7] squelch the strong individualistic tendencies of these people and to do everything necessary to make them want to get the work done.


Was there ever a feeling that in the area of administration the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston was a little weak?

Oh yes, it [Houston] had to start from scratch and it was very weak in the beginning. Dryden, Seamans, and I created a group of people that could go out to the various manned space installations and, because these were very senior people from outside the government, they could examine what was going on at Houston and then say to [Robert] Gilruth and the others at MSC, "Look, here's a better way to do it." The Houston officials would take these suggestions from an outside group that they respected, a peer group, when they wouldn't take it as an order from headquarters.


The mandate idea [President Kennedy's mandate of "landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade"] had an incredible effect on the [Apollo] program. Do you think that the concept of project management can be equally successful when it is not as heavily mandated?

Bear in mind that the public image that we had to land on the Moon in this decade was not the real management concept of NASA. This was sort of a political forward thrust, looking at the fact that maybe the Russians would do something big by 1967 at their 50th anniversary. What we had in mind was to try and build all the elements of a total space competence . . . We realized that man had developed an engine big enough for him to leave the Earth and move around in space, and that man's new ability to use the forces of gravity and inertia in ways that broke all the limits of the past could be decisive in international competition . . .

The lunar project to us was little more than a realistic requirement for space competence. To do Apollo and in the doing of it acquire a complete space competence . . . we realized there must be a continuing advance of scientific knowledge . . . and when the politicians, including the President, tended to say, "Well, gee, [8] we've got a tight budget here, just concentrate on getting this Moon thing," we always said "No, our objective must be broader."

The idea that the lunar landing was a mandate is a sort of foolish concept shared by a lot of people in NASA. You notice I never used it in my congressional testimony. I always stated that we were developing the full range of space capabilities and demonstrating this with the lunar landing. It is an interesting fact that the lunar landing represented a requirement that we learn to use 98 percent of the energy it takes to keep going to Mars or Venus-that it's about the same requirement as to get the same payload to synchronous orbit. There were many reasons associated with the lunar concept. The public image that it was a mandate, the way our public relations people dealt with it as a commitment on the part of Congress, you never saw me use. So you simply can't say that the idea or concept of a "mandate" produced the result. It was NASA's drive to do the total job of developing a full capability in space. If we simply said that we're going to the Moon and had not initiated the scientific and technical work forward of that which was required for the period after the landing, we never would have gotten to the Moon. We had to draw on knowledge that came from work generally considered to be beyond the original Apollo concept in order to do Apollo.

To the leadership of a large multifaceted organization operating within a framework of law and precedent, the mandate idea has its negative side. When President [John F.] Kennedy made his first visit to Huntsville and after looking around, said to Wernher, "Well what do you need? What can I do to help you get your work done?" Wernher replied, "Give us the money, and give us complete freedom to spend it any way we want to." I immediately broke in, because this is a foolish idea in a country like this with its pattern of legislative controls on the use of appropriated funds. Nobody could do that. But you see, this was von Braun's idea of the mandate; give him complete freedom.


Would it be better for NASA not to look for another mandate like this, but to secure the commitment and consent from Congress and from the president to continue to develop this total capability in spaceflight activity?



President John F. Kennedy and NASA Administrator James T. Webb at the Launch Operations Complex (later renamed the Kennedy Space Center) during a tour of NASA facilities on November, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy and NASA Administrator James T. Webb at the Launch Operations Complex (later renamed the Kennedy Space Center) during a tour of NASA facilities on November, 1963. (NASA Photo)


I think it's utterly foolish to ask a political leader to commit himself for some 10 to 20 years in advance to a goal that's going to involve a lot of money and that can easily be attacked but is hard to defend. What you have to generally do is proceed as rapidly as you can toward things that you can gain acceptance of and always be prepared to change, to slow up for large obstacles or to thrust forward if that seems possible. Very few people realized that the Gemini program permitted us to stop with the completion of the flights and never go to Apollo, yet still have a lot of experience as a base for future thrusts. Of course, some goal or goals are necessary, but beyond Apollo, goals like a manned landing on Mars have such long lead-times that it is doubtful a president and a Congress will stake their full power on getting what you would call a mandate.


[10] Theoretically then, we could stop at Apollo or we could continue a different or wider program?

It's the development, exploration and use of space that you are after, not a mandate to go to Mars . . . I think that in many ways Kennedy said we were going to the moon in this decade not on the basis of what NASA had told him, but on the basis of how he felt as President he could bid for support. That has little to do with project management, except that project management finds it hard to understand that their job is not what the President said it is. It's very hard for them to understand that, because they're generally people with blinders on to limit side vision in getting at their projects. That's what you want them to do. You don't want them to try to run NASA and run their project at the same time.


Do you think the general run-of-the-mill Congressman knows more about Apollo and its activities than he knows about other programs of the same magnitude? Has Apollo done a better job of informing Congress?

. . . Life magazine asked NASA to put on a week's demonstration for the heads of 20 companies that paid a billion dollars in taxes and had no space contracts. At the end of that program, the head of one of the biggest financial institutions in the United States got up and made a little speech. He said: "When I started out from New York a week ago, if anybody would have asked me if I was a supporter of this program, I would have said 'no'. Now a week later I've learned an awful lot and I can't say I'm 100 percent for it, but I'm about 95 precent for what I've seen." And then he pointed a finger at me and said, "What do you mean by doing all this without letting me know? . . ."

This was true of a lot of the members of Congress. The essence of Apollo's support that enabled us to make sure we had the votes when we needed them lay in the dedication of a few congressional leaders who were determined that the United States' future, its ability to hold and wield power and not become second-best in advanced technology, would not be put in jeopardy by failure to [11] develop this new space medium. And there were a few who were determined to destroy the program. So there was this general contest among very powerful people which was decided in annual increments, by counting votes in the committees and in the House and Senate. There were a few of us who could talk to both sides and knew how to anticipate the votes . . . And because of this we were able to make a very simple assumption: "We have a strong base of support, so we're going to put in the program enough power to get airborne and enough power to get into orbital speed on this program . . ."

We put Nova [a project to develop a massive expendable booster larger than the Saturn V to enable direct ascent to the lunar surface] in the Apollo program as well as Saturn. Later, we found that we didn't need Nova, so we readjusted the funds without losing our base of support . . . Our statements to Congress made it clear that we had to make changes on a learn-as-you-go basis. This was accepted by the budget director, by the president and by leaders in Congress. What the general run-of-the-mill congressman thought or how he answered his people, depended a lot on his own situation. Many did not want to make a public commitment, but I've never known one where you went into his district with an astronaut . . . and, at the end of the day, after they had seen the tremendous response that this program drew from the younger people in the district, they would say, "This is fine, I'm for it."


I've noticed a lot of personnel shifts, from Headquarters out to various Centers, from the Centers back to Headquarters . . . Is this intentional?

Yes, a great deal of this was intentional . . . I made it clear to do all we could to encourage people to cooperate in these moves. We couldn't order people to move like you can in the military; we had to persuade them. Eventually, we got enough examples of people who had gained substantially personally from this that others then sought it.

One of the most interesting things [that happened to me] is when I failed to get a deputy director after Seamans left. I tried two [12] or three people, and they all turned me down. This was with President Johnson's knowledge and instruction. Finally John Macy called me up and said the President would like to send a man named Tom Paine . . . I saw him and concluded that this fellow had the needed know-how in science, engineering, and management. He had the necessary judgment and capability and he was young. So I said fine, we'd like to have you. Then I asked him, "Now why do you want to do this?" He said, "I've been selected to be in the top group at GE in Headquarters, from which they pick the group vice presidents and the top people of the company, but I told them no, I want to come in the government for a few years to broaden myself." I thought that's a mighty fine recommendation.

Well, he hadn't been there but a short period of time before a fellow named [James M.] Beggs sent me word through a friend of his that if that was good enough for Paine, he'd like to do it, too. He'd been selected to be in the top group at Westinghouse from whom they picked the top people, but he'd like a tour of duty in government to broaden himself. Shortly after that, Carl Harr [of the President's staff] called me up and said I've got another one for you, Phil Whittaker of IBM. You see, the power of example is compelling. A lot of people now want to do something like Tom Paine's doing. With the change of administrations, Whittaker is going over to the Air Force to be in charge of all procurement. Beggs has become undersecretary of Transportation and Tom Paine's running NASA. Many areas of government are benefiting from the work of these able, business-trained government executives who want the broadest of experience. This is what we wanted to accomplish in moving men from the Centers to Headquarters and vice versa.