Interviewer: Dr. John Mauer
Location: National Air and Space Museum
Date: April 24, 1989
TAPE 1, SIDE 1
DR. MAUER: Brian Duff is the former director of NASA's Public Affairs Division, as it was designated at the time. This interview will cover the full span of Brian Duff's experience at NASA, which began many years before when he was a reporter who was hired to come on board. Why don't we pick up?
MR. DUFF: I came to work for NASA straight from the news business. I was in the Washington bureau of a chain of newspapers called the Copley Newspapers. I was recruited by Julian Scheer, who at that time was also an ex-newsman. He'd worked for Charlotte Observer, and he and I had covered space together. We had covered the [Birgil] Grissom Mercury launch down in Florida. Julian has been hired by James Webb to be deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, and very shortly thereafter was named assistant administrator for public affairs.
To get an idea how titles go, I was the director of the division of public services, which involved, during the five years that I held my job, everything except press. It included books, movies, exhibits, and answering letters, which was a very big operation. The letters got to the 60,000-a-month level at the height of the program. It included a massive traveling exhibit program. It included educational programs in schools, which involved the Spacemobiles that went around the country and things like that. Many people thought it was an especially interesting job, because it also involved taking the astronauts on good will tours, either inside the Untied States, or in the case of astronauts who had flown, overseas. In that period I went to 55 countries with most of the astronauts who were active in the sixties, including Neil Armstrong and [Edwin "Buzz"] Aldrin.
I had gone to work with John Gardner at the National Urban Coalition because this was the height of the riots in the cities. I was very personally interested in helping with what looked to be most the important crisis facing us all in those days.
A year later Julian asked me to come back. By this time he was very firmly entrenched as the assistant administrator forpublic affairs and he set the tone for the public affairs organization at NASA, and with the help of Mr. Webb, its thrust and policies. He asked me to come back and go down to Houston and become the director of public affairs in Houston, which means the director of public affairs at the field level for all manned flight. But it wasn't called director of public affairs. In the funny nomenclature of NASA, it was called the public affairs officer even though there were many public affairs officers, I was called the public affairs officer by NASA. But the public called the people who held that job "The Voice of Apollo," although the amount of broadcasting one did was pretty much up to the incumbent, whoever he might be.
MAUER: Let's go back and start at the beginning. Scheer knew you, he needed someone, and he called you up and asked you to come to NASA.
DUFF: Right. Scheer got a call from the White House, because I had covered the Kennedy Campaign and knew most people in the press operation for the Kennedy White House, Julian and I knew each other from working together, and I called a friend of mine at the White House and said, "I'd like to go into the government in some position. I'd like to go about a year because I'd like to get some experience on the inside, and I fully intend to go back into news." He said, "They're looking for people in three places." One of them was HEW [Department of Health, Education and Welfare] one of them was NASA, and of was something else which I can't remember. I said, "NASA sounds like a nice one." He said, "Let me give someone a call." It turned out that the person he called was Julian. Julian and I knew each other, which was an easy connection. I talked to HEW.
MAUER: Who was it in the White House that you called?
DUFF: Actually it was Hal Levy. Hal Levy was not in the White House, he was assistant to the Secretary of HEW-- the former mayor if Cleveland, I think.
Julian and I had always gotten along well, and we'd been thrown together at the Cape [Canaveral] Julian was, as I say, deputy. The assistant ad ministrator for public affairs, was a sociologist from North Carolina named George Simpson. Julian was working for Simpson. Simpson was an academic, and although he was very able he wasn't comfortable with the incredible level of activity that we were involved in and the short deadlines and the need to build up as fast as we were building up in those days. In a few months he went back to teaching and Julian took over the public affairs position. He put a stamp on it that exits to this day. You can't give him enough credit for his belief in what we called the open program and his ability to convince NASA management that this was in the best interests of the agency.
MAUER: What did that mean?
DUFF: It meant an ever growing willingness to share the business of the agency with the media, and through the media, with the public. I was talking with Al Sehlstad (Baltimore Sun,) one day, and he said, "Brian, do you realize how much that program evolved? At the time of Al [Alan B., Jr.] Shepard's flight we didn't know who the pilot was until the morning of the flight. I said, "Al, you've got to be wrong. It can't have been that way." He said, "We didn't really know until the morning of the flight who the designated pilot was." I said, "That's incredible."
Later on we got into such things as live air to ground. That evolved. But there was a ten-second delay for a long time. There was no air to ground. Then there was a ten-second delay for a long time. There was no air to ground. Then there was a ten-second delay. In early days you thought you were hearing was space but you really were hearing Shorty [John] Powers telling you about space. Shorty Powers was, of course, the first voice of Mercury. Even with Shorty, there was a different style. There was clearly a PR [public relations] sense, in the NASA operation, that didn't exist in other government R&D [research and development] programs. Shorty invented such words as "A OK," and a phrase that those of us in the business used: "We have a calm, cool and collected astronaut." He didn't have any more idea that it was a calm, cool and collected astronaut than some guy in the press box making that same statement about a quarterback down on the field. It was totally subjective on Shorty's part. But he though his job was to inject color into the program. Later we got away from that sort of thing and tried very hard not to inject color but to let the voices speak for themselves.
It's hard to say what it [the style] was. It was such things as when the Ranger spacecraft was approaching the moon -- the scientists at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] wanted a delay on release of the pictures for the Ranger, and they insisted that they had to have the delay in case something went wrong. Julian supposedly said--I wasn't there--" If you touch that switch and cut it off, I'm going to punch you in the mouth," or something like that. Knowing Julian, he probably did. It came out and we were always very proud later because for the first time on a TV screen they appeared "live from the moon."
The live aspects of the coverage came in incremental bits and pieces. I had a long argument with a guy I admired very much, Deke [Donald] Slayton, on many things. One of them was whether we could have live television coverage of the recovery. It was at least two missions, maybe three, after we had the physical capability of live coverage from the recovery area. I could never find out why we weren't getting it. At that time I was in Houston, and I was theoretically running the publicaffairs office in Houston. But public affairs is a staff position, and you recommend -- you do not direct, you recommend, and you counsel, and so therefore you have to persuade.
I could never get to the bottom of why we weren't getting live pictures, because every time we'd go into the mission thinking we were going to get them, and then mysteriously that wouldn't happen. I could think of no reason why we weren't getting them, because it was our camera, our camera men and our helicopter, Finally someone said, "Brian, it's Deke. Deke doesn't want it. And Deke swings a lot of weight around here."
I went up to see Deke at 6:00 one night. I said, "Deke, why aren't we getting these picture of the recovery? We get them later and they're lovely, but we should have them at the time of splash down." He said, "I don't ever want to see an American astronaut vomiting on national television." I said, "It's our camera and we're way up in the helicopter."I think we've got to go live with it. I don't think that's a good enough reason." He said, "It's good enough for me." Obviously I'm paraphrasing a bit because I don't recall. I said, "We've got to go and see Bob [Robert] Gilruth on this."
We went to see Dr. Gilruth and Dr. Gilruth said to Deke, "I'm afraid you lose on this one. It's just too important. Your concerns, while they're human, are not overriding in this case--the fact that you might embarrass an astronaut. We could probably work it so we don't get pictures of an astronaut actually vomiting." As a matter of fact, we never did.
We got some marvelous and memorable photography of the chute opening and the spacecraft splashing down and the astronauts being picked up, all of which is transitory because six months later, you can't remember whether it was live or not. But in fact it was live, and it was part of that willingness to do it the open--tell people what you're going to do, when you're going to do it, where you're going to do it, and not only invite them to be there, but do everything you can't to make sure that their access is as open as you can possibly make it without interfering with the program.
As I'm telling this, I realize that the big argument with Deke was not the parachutes, the big one was putting a pool reporter inside mission control. I didn't have anything to say to say about who went in launch control, but I did have a lot to say about who went in mission control. I've heard since that Julian thinks he's the one who did that. I suppose he is, because it I'd propose it, it would go to Washington and come back. But I remember arguing that we should have a pool reporter in mission control several missions, and again, my nemesis was Deke. He didn't want anyone in mission control, even though theonly people in mission control who worked for Deke were the astronauts themselves, that is, the people who were on the Capcom who talked with spacecraft. He said, "I can't live with someone sitting on the corner of my desk second guessing every decision I make."
I don't always think so quickly on my feet, but that's when I said, "Deke, that's not a good argument. You're not a businessman making business decisions in your office. You and your people are a hell of a lot closer to an NFL football team, where the team members have drilled and drilled and are the best people in the world to do what they're doing. We've just gone through this fire and we've been terribly traumatized by it, and we had nobody to speak up for us. There was no one there who could say, 'these guys did a good job--or a bad job.' As a consequence we have been jerked all over the place by people who really don't know what we do and whether we should be criticized or not." I said, "The best thing in the world that could possibly happen, if this happens again, is to have a neutral objective observer who simply says, 'Whatever they did, they're the best group, the best drilled, the best trained people in the world to have handled that, and if they didn't handle it--. Maybe they screwed up but at least there was someone there who was objective.'" And I argued for a pool reporter. Its a dirty trick to play on the pool reporter--his whole environment requires objectivity--because he becomes the single voice of the entire press corps and he's not competitive any more. He really becomes, in a sense, preempted by the event. We had a pool reporter on the Apollo 13.
Deke and I had to go to Gilruth again on that argument. These things always seemed to happen at night and always in Deke's office, which was at one end of the building, with Gilruth's at the other end. We went tripping up the hall to see Gilruth, and Gilruth said, "Deke, I'm convinced." A lot of people didn't agree wit that, but in fact it turned out to be true, and it was proven on Apollo 13.
Apollo 13 was horrendous. If we had had everyone second-guessing us, if we'd had congressional committees flying to Houston and presidential investigating groups coming down to second guess us--but they left us alone, because the press coverage coming out of mission control on Apollo 13 was so reasoned and so cool that everyone had the sense that they should leave us alone and that no one could do any good by going down there. We literally had a case in Apollo 13 where live, not on the air but on the intercom, between the pool reporter and mission control--Roy Neil [of NBC] told Walter Cronkite that he was wrong, that he was overstating the seriousness of the case, and that he ought to correct his broadcast. Cronkite would never have taken that from a federal public affairs officer, but hetook it from Neil because Neill was his colleague.
Neill said "Walter, you're saying these guys are starving from lack of oxygen." Cronkite was saying that the atmosphere was deteriorating so fast that in an hour or two they were going to lose the astronauts. Neill was inside mission control, watching what was going on, and he realized that they had hooked up a way to get fresh air from the LEM. He got on and said, "Walter, you've got to fix that, that's wrong," and Cronkite fixed it. That was the sense of the open program.
To give you an idea why there was an open program--we had an open program because it was good policy. It's good business sense to have an open program when you're running something as hard to control as the space program. It's a bit like the NFL [National Football League]. You can be as good as possible and still lose games. You've got to be judged on your seasonal performance, and you've got a very high risk operation. Machines can fail, people can fail, things can get totally out of control, the spacecraft can be hit by lightning. You are dealing with a situation in which the only possible way to succeed is to have as much understanding, as much education on the part of the people who are watching you as you can possible achieve so that you are being judged by people who have a basis to judge you. And that, for me, argues for an open program. It's always hard to translate these things to other situations, but with a more open approach the nuclear energy industry might have gotten through their troubles with a lot less trauma. But they walled themselves off from the public.
MAUER: What you're saying, then, is that if you do the best job you know how, and you do your job as you claim you do, then an open program allows people to see your expertise, so that, when things go back as they did with Apollo 13, you're able to demonstrate it. My understanding of the atomic energy program is they weren't always doing things the way they claimed they were.
DUFF: Yes, it could be argued that it also works the other way. It makes you do your job better. I think it's great for morale. I think it was good for us.
Every once in a while there would be someone who'd want to make an exception. The one that come to mind is the airplane accident involving a pilot flying a P-38 or helicopter, because he does some joy riding on a weekend. Astronauts do that. People do that. People do dumb things. And they say, "Well, let's put that away somewhere." I said, "The minute you do that, the minute you make exceptions, it isn't fair. It isn't fair to the pilot who make the mistake. It isn't fair to the next pilot who's going on. It isn't fair to the family if someone gets hurt." It's a hard argument, and it gets harder when you'retalking about an individual's reputation. They say, "Good old Charlie, it's not serious, it isn't important." But I think if you've got an open program and you release things that happen in the program and you live by it, it exerts a discipline on the program that's valuable to the program. I tend to think that's true. If you didn't have to tell people what you did, it would be very easy.
MAUER: Was the open program already in place when you came on board?
DUFF: No. That's why I mentioned this thing about Al Sehlstad and how it evolved. I was trying to describe how it actually came incrementally. I'll give an example of the other side, the temptation to not do it. Pete [Charles] Conrad--someone else I'm very fond of--came in before his flight and said that we had to reinstate the ten-second delay, which is one of the devices that protects television people from mistakes on the air. I said, "Pete, I'm not going to do it. We worked too hard to get this. It's part of the tradition of the space program now. We do not have a delay, we have live air to ground with no delay. They hear it absolutely as it comes down, they hear it at the same time, and they see it at the same time you do." I said, "The scientists out JPL don't like it. They want to see this first. We're not going to do that. It's going to come straight down from the spacecraft they're going to see it the same time you see it. He said, "I'm going to embarrass you. We can't clean up our language, and we're going to embarrass our families and NASA and the whole space program." He said, "You've got to do something to clean it up and cut out the swear words." I said, "Pete, we're not going to do it." He said, "Well, it's your problem. It's going to be your fault." I said, "No, it's going to be your fault." The result was--if you've ever listened to a tape of that flight, it is the most Boy Scout, full of expressions like "gee whiz, golly whiskers, holy smoke, gosh, isn't that a great big rock there?" and things like that. Of course there was no swearing.
Swearing happened only because of something unexpected for example when Tom Stafford said, "Oh shit!" on the Gemini flight, where it torqued quickly and he was smacked around. And of course the letters came in. I used to say, "Two things cause letters swearing and praying. You have prayer letters and swear letters."
Pete wanted to go back, and in a sense that was frivolous, but it's always a great temptation to slide back. And it happened. It happened to NASA. People ask me what happened between the days of Apollo and the days of the Challenger. I think the program had begun to constrict a little bit. Hans Mark was deputy administrator. He and I had used to exchange longmemos on the open program. I don't have them anymore unless they're in a cardboard box somewhere.
MAUER: If you do have the memos, they should be archived.
DUFF: Yes, I should see if I can find them, because some of those exchanges between Hans and me were great. I wrote long three-or four-page memos to Hans on what I thought was the basis for the open program, because he was saying, "What the hell are we doing this for? Why don't we just have a launch, take a picture, release the picture, and it if doesn't work tell them it was cancelled." Maybe I'm over-stating it. But he really wanted, in effect--he didn't know why we had all those press people down in Florida for a launch. He couldn't understand it. He wanted to reverse it.
I went to talk to Hans one night. I said, Dr. Mark, it's too late." I didn't argue, I just said, "I work for you, and if you tell me that we're going to do, I'm going to do everything I can to try to dissuade you, but frankly, I think it's too late. Five presidents, six administrators, and how many Congresses have ratified the open program, not necessarily in a formal way, but in the sense that they've accepted it approved it, and praised it." I said, "I think the administrator who tries to roll back the open program, unless he does it very subtly, won't survive it." I believed that because the American people, Congress, the president, and everyone supports and believes that it's a birthright, that the open space program is an American birthright. An administrator who tried to reverse it would probably not succeed and would not even survive the attempt.
The open program also meant that any photography from space became public domain, the television material as it television material as it came down became domain, and there was no attempt to copyright anything. Then I found myself here at the [National] Air and Space Museum working on a project which is the first exception to that, the Imax effort I argued that while I was still at NASA, saying, "This is not a conflict. This is another evolutionary step. This is a way to try to get information about the space program in a more sophisticated way. We've passed the point where news by itself is enough. It's become more complex, more sophisticated, and more important. It's time to have a professional come in and do a finished, creative piece about it. That will cost money, and we'll have to give the people who do it a guarantee that they can get their money back." Otherwise, why should the people at the [National] Air and Space Museum and Lockheed do it if anybody can take it away from them and make another? We sold Imax on the basis that while it was a change of policy, it still followed the principle that the producer would be the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian, which meant in effect, that everyone wasrepresented. Therefore, the public was benefitted by it. No one was deprived of anything because the contract said very specifically that it the Imax camera ever got a picture which wasn't duplicated by other NASA cameras, that it would be released in only format for the news media. You can have your cake and eat it too. And that's still in effect. If there is any case the Imax camera takes something that isn't duplicated, with reasonable equipment--
MAUER: It avoids the problem exclusivity.
DUFF: Yes, except that it protects the Imax project. Mind you, the only thing the Imax producer wants is the image of Imax on Imax film. sixteen mm or video doesn't bother him at all, because if you took Venus live and put it on a television set, it would look like it was produced by NASA. What makes the Imax interesting is the huge negative, which has to be projected on a big screen. Do you see what I'm saying?
MAUER: Yes, I understand exactly what you're saying. It's the format.
DUFF: Were you there when they showed the rushes of the last flight?
MAUER: I missed that.
DUFF: If you'd seen them on the big screen, you'd say, "Oh my God, that's incredible! If you take that same film, transfer it to video tape, and put it on your television set, it looks like any other space footage. No one gets hurt. Graeme Ferguson (Imax producer) is very much afraid of that happening, but I'm convinced it wouldn't make any difference. You can't take video tape of Imax film and make an Imax film from it. You cannot blow it back up to Imax. It will go down to video, but it won't go back up to Imax. The Imax films are just another step in the evolution of getting more and more access to the space program by more people. It just uses another medium. In the case of Imax, there had to be a guarantee, or they would never be able to--
MAUER: It's exclusivity of format, not of image.
DUFF: Exactly. And the exclusivity of format is to protect the investment. This is the first time we've ever had exclusivity of format, the first time it ever was an issue. The news people get their money back because they go on the air immediately. The fact that all three networks are on the air essentially the same pictures from space doesn't make a bit of difference, because they have their correspondents and the viewer doesn't know and doesn't care. They see the picture and let the correspondent follow the picture because they know the picture will be thesame. In fact the picture is the same.
It is an unprecedented situation in the news business to have a government agency collaborating with the world news agencies to tell the story. Ultimately, the reporter is the government. NASA covers itself. NASA select is NASA's standpoint, NASA's feed to the networks and to cable, not just to the United States but to the world.
That relationship began slowly with Mercury. Take some of the major incidents. As close as I was to it, I can't tell you exactly when it happened, that the networks began to rely on NASA to the extent they do. In Apollo they got the feed from the spacecraft camera, but they had a network pool producer. They got the feed and then gave it to the three networks. For each mission, a different network of the big three became the pool producer. By the time we got to the shuttle, NASA was the producer, and each network took the feed directly from NASA. It was not a passive thing that NASA would give them. NASA had 23 color cameras and the NASA producer produced the show. The networks were left with only the things they could add in the studios and only their correspondents' commentary.
MAUER: Each one had the correspondent talking to a different astronaut.
DUFF: Yes, but at a lower activity level. I used to sit in launch control in Florida, and as we came down the count, till we got down to T minus 10 minutes or 15 minutes, we would monitor all the networks--ABC, NBC, CBS and then all were carrying NASA signal, one we're so used to seeing, and it was obvious they were all three taking the same feed. It just evolved. Part of it was economy. Part of it was the sheer amount of money involved. Part of it was the requirement. You can't put four cameras in a spacecraft.
That was the interesting thing about the Imax camera. The reason we got away with the Imax thing was that, lucky, there weren't four different competing Imax companies. The sheer exclusivity of that process saved them. Because if there had been Imax, ZIGAMAX, BETAMAX, and QUADRAMAX we'd had to say no. We would have had to put one of them up there and bring the camera down and feed it to all four. It just happened, a lucky accident.
MAUER: Let's come back in time to when you first came on board. Your duties brought you in close contact with James Webb, the administrator of NASA throughout most of the 1960s.
DUFF: right. My association with Webb and [Hugh] Dryden was very close, especially when they were out of town. In Webb's case thatwas a fair amount of the time, because he was a national salesman for the space program. Julian wanted someone to travel with Webb, and I got that assignment. It was unwritten. I traveled every time Webb traveled, and I arranged the trips. I didn't always go out literally in advance, as is done for a White House trip, but I did it all on the phone. I put the schedule together and I had a lot to say about the things we did, including the broad objectives of the trip. Webb would let me know what they were and I'd do something about them. But the important thing was that I was of ten the only NASA person with him when he was out of town, and I certainly got an unprecedented view of the way Webb operated in the public forum.
We also produced all of Webb's speeches, none of which he ever read. He would say, "Don't worry about it, Brian, I'll never disavow it, but I don't particularly want to read it." We always wanted to have an advance copy of his speeches to give to the local newspaper so that they could get it in type, particularly if it was an afternoon paper and Webb was speaking at night. Webb would say he'd never disavow a speech, and yet he had the same speech. He didn't want to just read his speeches, so he'd get up and give the James Webb Space Speech with minor changes. The minor changes might often be something he'd read in a book on the plane on the way down. The books he read were of a special kind. He was very fond of [Alexis] de Tocqueville and similar writers who fitted his philosophy. He'd mention these things in his speeches.
I heard that Dick [Richard] Truly said last week, "If we could get to the moon and come back with a load of helium, in view of all the excitement over the desk top fusion experiment, we might pay for the whole space program with one load of helium." One of Webb's favorite quotes was, "The first ship full of pepper that came back paid for all the explorations that had preceded it." Maybe helium is our peppercorn.
It was very rare that I would sit in on a negotiation over a major contract or testimony on Capitol Hill. The administrative side of Webb is better found in other places. What I saw was the Webb personality.
MAUER: Yes, you saw the Webb personality, but you also saw how he handled external relations, because you were with him when he went out and talked in public. You also saw the way that he related to various public figures. I think it would be good to relate your experiences on that level.
DUFF: I'll give you an example. It is rarer than you might think, because on these trips you make speeches, you shake hands and you go. But I'll give you a couple of examples that I think were telling. One of them was our trip to Detroit, where Webbmade a speech at Cobo Hall. The space program prominent in US affairs at that time, and Webb had decided that he wanted technology utilization--what we later began calling technology utilization or spinoff.
Webb was a businessman as well as a bureaucrat, and one of his one of his goals was to have the United States profit from the work that was going on in the space program. He didn't go around the county promoting spinoff by saying that we should feel good about the space program because we were getting free raincoats or wristwatches or frying pans out of it. He said, "Don't sell the program on the basis of spinoff. People are paying to go to the moon, they're going to go to the moon, and that's what they're paying for. We should not try to justify going to the moon on the basis of spinoff. We should go to the moon because it's good public policy and it's an incredible human effort. It costs money and we're paying for it," he said, "but that's not what I call spinoff. Spinoff is the movement of the technology that comes out of the space program into American industry where it's used. Forget the fact that you get a teflon frying pan out of it. Think about the competitiveness. He was saying things we're saying today. "Think about the competiveness of American industry. Think of the things we'll learn as a result of the space program--not just material things, but management skills, the ability to organize large efforts and to control them and to keep track of them and so forth." He saw those kinds of things coming out of the space program. He wanted to see that move into the private sector as fact as possible. He said, "It doesn't move fast enough. We've got to move it faster."
He established what later became technology utilization centers. The first one was at Wayne State [University, Detroit, Michigan] which was a state university, then perhaps a state college. After the speech at Cobo Hall, he had some businessmen come back to his hotel room. One of them was Dwight Morrow, who was senior vice president of Chrysler Corporation. There were also senior executives from Ford and from General Motors, presidents or Chairmen of the board. He had the big three of the auto industry in the days when the US auto was big.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
DUFF: We all went to Webb's suite and Webb unveiled for this his concept of the technology utilization program, and he said that it had several important elements. One of them was that it would give these people a chance to mine this rich field of emergency technology. He said, "I'd like to see you also contribute your own technology to it." He said, "I realize you feel a little shaky about that, but that's why we're creating these technologyutilization centers. I want to assure you that the technology utilization center will be a trusted third source. As a lawyer, I understand that when competitors talk, it's very important to you all to know that confidentiality will be respected, that if you ask for everything we know about plastics or heat-treating metals, you don't want your competitor to know what you're asking." He said, We would guarantee to you that we would respect the confidentiality of the material you put in and the material you tried to take out. If you've got technology that you think is of general use to American industry and that you are willing to contribute, we'd love have it." These four men sat around and talked about this. He also said, "I want you to pay for it, because I'm enough of a businessman to know that if you get anything for nothing, you're not going to think much about it. Even the people who work for you won't think much about it. I want it on the books what it cost you, so that someone will make sure you get your money's worth, and that means you're going to use it." He said, "I feel strongly enough about this to get it started, and I'm going to put in"--I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was something like two million dollars to get this process started.
These were the sorts of things he was doing, that would be quite hard for an administrator today to do--effectively reprogramming money to new uses. He may very well have gone through Congress and gotten approval for this. If he didn't do it then, he did it later. He put a significant amount of money into the technology utilization program. He established it at Wayne State with the president of Wayne State. Webb got him to agree, and then he said [to the businessmen], "I'd like you each to put in X amount of money." It wasn't as much as NASA was putting in, but it was something like $100,000 a piece for the first year, with the understanding that if it worked, they would slowly take over the cost over a three-year period. Then he said, "Brian, let's go get a cup of coffee and give these gentlemen a chance to think about it." Some people might say that he was putting undue pressure on these potential contractors, but I don't think any of those three, with the possible exception of Chrysler, was a NASA contractor.
We went downstairs, and had a cup of coffee and came back up. They called and said, "Jim, we think it's worth trying. We're in." As far as I know the technology utilization program is alive and kicking today. I don't know how much of it transferred out, but it's become a very big operation. Those centers are probably in a number of states.
There's another story that was a bit different. Webb had agree to make a speech in Mississippi for Senator [John] Stennis. As we began to research the speech, we realized what he was doing: the state legislature had an election based on a blatantappeal to racism, and they all got elected. Webb was somehow tapped to be the keynote speaker at the celebration of this sweep, which had brought a lot of new people into the state legislature, based on a fairly naked appeal to a racist policy.
At the same time, the trial of Medgar Evers was going on, and every liberal newspaperman in the United States was in Mississippi for Medgar's trial. I'm not claiming credit for picking up on this, but I got a call from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They said, "It is true that Webb's going down to talk to these bigots?" But they said it in nice, diplomatic language. I said, "Where, when, what?" The SNCC spokesman said, we've got James Webb, the head of the space program, which had done a lot in places like Alabama to break down some of the hiring and other barriers. You have a good record. Why is the administrator of the space program going down to talk to these guys? This is a victory celebration for this Neanderthal group that just got itself swept into the state legislature." He said, "We're going to picket. We've got broadsides. I'll send you some samples of the material we're distributing down there. Things are quiet in the Evers trial so we're bringing those newsmen over."
I went to see Webb, and he was very busy. We were about to catch the plane, and I talked to his administrative assistant, Larry Vogel, a colonel. I said, "Larry, we've got to get to the boss. This is bad. We could do a lot of damage, we could set things back a long way, inadvertently." But I couldn't see Webb. There literally wasn't time.
Finally we walked down to the car and went to get on the plane, and we tried to talk to him. I don't think he thought it was as serious as I did. In addition, Webb is a southerner, and he had made a promise to Stennis. Luckily, it was a typical Webb trip. It went from place to place, so we had time to work on it. We finally got to Little Rock, Arkansas. At one point we were seated facing each other at a table in the middle of the plane, trying to convince Webb that he shouldn't make the speech. He came and sat down and I gave him the whole picture again. I said, "Mr. Webb, you don't really have a choice. You can't do it. You have to call up Senator Stennis.
Before I left, I had called the Senator's office and said, "You got us into this. Can you get the boss off the hook? We don't want to do this. Get someone else. Give us an easy way out, withdraw the invitation so that can Webb can slide out of it." A spokesman had said, "Don't worry about it. We're ready for it. We have dogs and deputies." I though "Oh, no!" It was obvious that he was ready for confrontation. Put yourself back in that time. Things were tense down there.
On the trip I could tell that Webb was getting worried Little Rock was still recovering from its own troubles. I think Webb thought that I wasn't really the right one to handle things. He came down to the table in the airplane and said, "Brian, you've got to get me out of this." I said Yes sir, I'll call--" He said, "No, you have to figure out a way that I can make that speech. I'm going to go up and take a nap. When I come back I want to hear what it is." I took a yellow legal pad and wrote down everything I could think of, some of the most ridiculous things.
Mrs. Webb was traveling with us, and I said, "The first thing we have to do is get Mrs. Webb and Mr. Webb's secretary on another plane back to Washington, in case there's violence. I'll get off the plane and try to get a sense of how it really on is on the ground. My list wasn't helpful. It was a list of things we could do, but at the bottom I wrote, "Don't go." My other suggestions were really bandaids and were not going to do anything except to make him feel better. Webb said, "Damn it, that's no solution," or something like that. That was the only time I ever remember him swearing in front of me.
We landed in Little Rock, where he was speaking to a group of businessmen. They were putting us up at a hotel or club. Webb then turned, thank God, to the president of an insurance company in Little Rock who was the chairman of the business group and said, "I have a problem here. What do you think?" and he described the situation. And this businessman, this southerner--after he'd gone through this whole thing--said, "Well, Mr. Webb, I don't think it's good manners to invite a man to your house when your house is on fire." Webb said, "I guess you're right. Brian, see if you can get Senator Stennis." He called Stennis and said, "Personally, I want to come. As far as I'm concerned, I've made a commitment, and I think I should come. But I've become convinced that I don't have the right, my personal desire to fulfill the commitment I made to you personally isn't within my power as administrator to provide. I'm sorry to have to ask you to let me out of this commitment. I realize it's an embarrassment to you. Feel free to say anything you like about my motives. I don't remember exactly how he put it. The essence of it was that he was putting Stennis in a bad position, and he wanted Stennis to know that he would not quibble over any characterization Stennis might make about his courage or his willingness to live up to his commitment. He was willing to let Stennis use whatever he needed to push the burden, from us onto Webb. When he finished talking-- I didn't hear the other end of it, but apparently Stennis said, "Jim, we knew this was coming and we've already got a substitute. The lieutenant governor is going to make the speech." So we were out of it. But to me that was Webb in action--his commitment and his sense of what the requirements were, as a person and as administrator. He really was hard pressed at that point. The sense of it is very in my mind, although the details are fuzzy at this point.
MAUER: That's fine. Webb was the one who focused on the outside connections of NASA. He wasn't so much caught up in the day to day details. You had an experience with Webb and George Mahon, the congressman.
DUFF: Yes. I think Webb was very good with the Hill. I didn't have as much chance to see him working with the White House, but he was close to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. Whenever he talked to the White House, he'd face the White House. He'd stand at his desk when he was on the phone with the White House and he would face the White House. When he talked to the Hill, he turned around and faced the Hill. I don't think he knew he was doing it, but he would physically turn and look in the direction.
MAUER: This was instinctual on his part?
DUFF: I think so. He cultivated congressmen whom he thought were important to the space program. He began working with Mahon before Mahon became Chairman of the Appropriation Committee, while he was a member of the committee.
MAUER: Was this in part because he saw how the seniority system worked and he know that Mahon was a rising star in Congress?
DUFF: I think so. Webb understood the Hill. You know, Webb worked on the Hill. You may know he worked for. He started as a young lawyer working for one of the senior senator from North Carolina. There was a term that was used for his connections the Tarheel Mafia. Everything was "mafia" in those days--the Irish Mafia, for instance. He's recounted this in oral history interviews that he's done with Martin Collins and other people.
Webb's experience with Mahon was typical. He got him to agree to do, or he found a time when Mahon was going back to his district and he gave him a ride. He had the Gulfstream. He offered to give the congressman a ride in the Gulfstream and he then agreed to go with him and make some speeches in the district, and he took Gordon Cooper, the astronaut, with him. This was fairly early in the program. He got the congressman in the airplane. The airplane was a very good place to work, because in the back of the plane there were four seats, four big easy chairs that would swivel to face each other. Webb sat in the rear left seat, and he put the congressman in the right seat. If he had an astronaut or a senior scientist--he always had someone interesting along--he would put the astronaut in one of the other seats. If I happened to be on the trip I might sit in the other seat. He always included me in the conversation, especially if it was about something we were doing: Did youfollow up on that, Brian? Make sure the congressman gets those reports," and so on. I played that function.
We had a long ride down to Lubbock, [Mahon's district] and he spent that time gently giving the congressman his sales pitch. He talked about it in very down-to-earth terms--the number of jobs (we always knew how many jobs would be generated in each state and each city) and the flow of technology into the program. He was very pragmatic about the program, and he also talked about the importance of the program in terms of national purpose and national prestige and our place in the world. It didn't hurt that they'd been in the State Department and Bureau of Budget.
When we got to Lubbock--this was a typical Webb whirlwind trip. We--Webb and the astronaut appearing together--must have made a speech at every high school in Lubbock, and I think there were four of them. At the first one, Mahon introduced them and then he moved over and sat on the edge of the stage. By the time we got to the second one, he'd seen Webb's appeal, and of course there were also adults--in between the high school there were luncheons and the Rotary and that sort of thing. He'd seen the appeal that Webb and especially Cooper had, and his chair began moving across the stage, getting closer and close to these two stars. By the last speech Mahon may not have been in the middle of the stage but he was side by side and the three chairs were together on the stage. I think he began to appreciate that Webb was probably good for votes, but also, he genuinely appreciated what he was.
Even when Mahon was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, if he wanted something done in his district, something totally appropriate like getting an exhibit for a science fair, he'd call and arrange it himself. Of course we'd immediately do it, because that's why we had exhibits and things like that. But that was pure Webb.
Did you heard the story about the time [Senator Stuart] Symington put Webb in a hotel room with no bed? Or is that pure anecdote?
MAUER: It's good anecdote, let's do it.
DUFF: Okay, very quickly. Symington was another good, dear friend of Webb's, partly because they'd both been in business and had run large organizations. We went to Missouri one time with Symington on another one of those typical whirlwind trips where we made speeches all over the state. We got in late to the Widmark Hotel in Kansas City. Everyone in the state knew who Symington was. He turned to the night clerk in the hotel, and said, "Young man, this is James Webb, the head of the US space program. Do you have a nice room for Mr. Webb?" He got fourkeys on the night desk went into total panic. He got four of five keys and held them out in his hands. Symington reached over, he picked one up, and give it to Webb.
We went upstairs, opened the door of Webb's suite, looked in, and it was fine there was a sitting room and a sofa and so forth, Symington said, "Well Jimmie, it's going to be satisfactory to you?" And Webb said, "Absolutely, Senator, you've treated us very well," and I went to my room and went to sleep.
The next morning I was in the coffee shop having coffee and Webb came down. He sat there for awhile and didn't say anything. Then he asked me if I wanted a piece of the paper, I said, "Fine," and he gave me a piece of the newspaper. There was a long pause. Finally he said, "Brian, what did you pay for the room?" I said, "$11." This was a long time ago. He said, "Well, that seems about right. I paid $70. That seems like an awful lot of money for a room with no bed in it." I said, "No bed in it?" He said, "No, I never could get the key to open the other door, so I slept on the couch all night." I said, "That's terrible!" He said, "No, it's not terrible, I'm an old Marine and it didn't bother me, but I do feel it's a lot of money considering I didn't get a chance to go to bed."
About this time Symington's administrative assistant showed up, and he overheard enough of it to understand something had gone wrong. The administrative assistant pried the story out of me, and it turned out that Webb had been put in a room that was normally used by Symington's local representative who covered the state for him. The guy had been using the room and running up a bill that should have been going to the senator's office, and instead they put it on Webb's bill. The administrative assistant of course straightened it out instantly. That was typical Webb. You or I would have called downstairs or done something. But to was late at night and he just loosened his tie and stretched out on the couch. I don't know where she shaved. We didn't hear about that. But he was an unusual public servant.
MAUER: He had a tremendous sense of how to direct. He was in charge of an extremely large agency involving many import decisions. What was it like working so closely with him at time?
DUFF: For one thing, his mind never quit. He was really in his element in a full scale briefing, all day long. It was disconcerting sometimes to be with him alone, because he was always thinking of things to do, some of which were possible and some of which I though were impossible. Being in a plane with him, for example--in sheer self-defense, I would take three or four large notebooks or books along and be totally busy as much time as I could because if I wasn't busy, he'd think of something for me to do. He almost had a--I hesitate to say discipline. You almost hesitate to tell him what you were doing from day to day because Webb would think of some reason to capitalize on that and put to work.
He thought that managing large projects was one of the most important things that NASA did. He said one time on the plane that the thing that the space program had contributed was the ability to manage the ability to manage very large projects in a civilian situation. He talked to Symington and Symington had to preside over the constriction of the Emerson Radio or something like that, but he said, "The two really big tough jobs in management are presiding over rapid expansion and rapid constriction." He had someone working for him at the end of the war who actually had to preside over the dismantling of a number of large federal organizations that had been created for the war. Webb said that he admired that man very much because it was a very difficult management process.
MAUER: Did Webb indicate that was not the type of management process the he would prefer to do?
DUFF: I think his preference would have been to manage expansion. He was a big admirer of [Wernher] von Braun, because von Braun wa another manager. von Braun was someone who was good at managing major programs. Webb asked me one time, on the plane, what I thought the biggest contribution of the program was, and I said "The Computer," or something like that. He said, "I think what will stand out when they look back on it later will be our contribution to large scale management."
MAUER: How frequently did he go off with members of Congress? Did he treat all members of Congress the same way? Obviously he didn't, but I'm asking if you had a sense of his differing approaches.
DUFF: I think he liked congressman and senators, and I think he essentially treated them all the same way. He was very circumspect about--one thing you almost never heard from Webb was criticism of someone.
I mentioned Mendel Rivers. Mendel Rivers' approach to NASA or to any government agency, and Mahon's approach, of course, were so different. Rivers would demand and Mahon would request. I definitely had the sense that the way Webb dealt with Rivers was that he said yes to everything. He said yes very quickly, hoping that Rivers would never notice that he didn't say yes to the things that he couldn't say yes to.
MAUER: I don't necessarily follow that.
DUFF: Rivers was famous for putting the pressure on federal bureaucrats to get hard installations for his home districts. If Rivers had wanted a major space station for South Carolina, for example--. We didn't put any space facility in South Carolina. I still remember going to a watermelon festival in Pickens with six astronauts. Webb's answer to Rivers would be, "I can't do that for you, Senator, but I can--" What I'm saying is that he'd do everything else he could.
MAUER: Now it's clear. What you're saying is that if he couldn't do what the senator was asking--
DUFF: He'd do other things, and hope for the best. I guess I'd better tell this story. Webb's discretion and his gentlemanliness were unique. Even I thought that he was courtly. Not courtly in a phony Old South way, but just plain chivalrous. For instance, when he said, "Dammit, that's not a solution," that's the only time I ever heard him say "damn" anything.
I'll give you an example. We went on a trip somewhere, and the person who met us was perhaps a university president. His wife was very attractive and was wearing a feathered hat, with a lot of multicolored grouse feathers. She was very attractive and very outgoing, and she had on this spectacular feathered hat. I said--not in her presence but while we were waiting for the car to come--"Mr. Webb, Mrs. Jones is a bird of brilliant plumage. He didn't chide me, but he said "Now, Brian, don't make fun of the lady." He had that old school chivalry.
MAUER: What was Webb's part in public affairs and what role did he play in developing the open program.
DUFF: Well that's something that Julian could be objective about. I'm very fond of Julian, but Julian had a high ego level. My feeling always was that if Julian had worked for another administration it would not have lasted a year. Julian and Webb were a great pair and yet they were very dissimilar. Julian wa irreverent--not that was he was coarse, but his language was rough and he could bully people to get things he wanted. He and Webb came together, and they shared the same absolute belief that the open program was the only way that had no real constituency, that was made up of a group of people from other agencies and suddenly had to build its own constituency as fast as it could.
MAUER: So an open program in part was a vision of how NASA could build a constituency,
DUFF: Oh, no question. How NASA could build a constituency in Congress, in the White House, by delivering positive public relations. When NASA get public relations--Lyndon Johnson understood this--when NASA gets good public relations, the president gets good public relations.
One of the reasons I was sent to Houston was because the public affairs officer in Houston didn't understand that it's the president's space program. Webb understood that. Webb understood it wasn't Jim Webb who was so important. I don't think Jim Webb was ever on the cover of Time Magazine. Chris [Christopher] Kraft was. Astronauts were. Jim Webb understood that the president had to get the credit, and the chairman of these [congressional] committees had to get the credit.
Did I ever tell you that story about when we were giving Webb one of those long two-day briefings, and the last person down the line was the public affairs officer. It wasn't Julian, he never would have done this. It was the public affairs officer who was up on the podium, and we had a rear screen projection system. They used glass slides in those days. Did I tell you that story.
DUFF: Up came a slide about the public affairs program, and the officer said, in all innocence, because the thought it was true, "We have an open program because we respect the public's right to know." And Webb said, "Destroy that slide," and there was a crash from behind the screen. Webb said, "We have an open program because it is good public policy to have an open program. It's good for NASA and it's an effective NASA policy to have an open program. I'm not in the business of the public's right to know. There are others like the attorney general who will take care of that. It's good public policy to have an open program."
We always made the argument on the basis that it was effective. It wasn't because we were trying to be better that the atomic energy people or better that the FAA [Federal aviation Administration] or better that the Air Force. We weren't trying to be better public citizens, we were trying to be more effective federal managers. And he felt that program, that space program, that new invention, that incredible effort had to have public understanding and public support.
You can go back and say "Did it really matter that we had public support? Did it make any difference? Wouldn't the old style have worked just as well?" We had Lyndon Johnson, what do we need public support for? We had George Mahon, we had two or three key people, why did we need public support? Webb would have said, "It's the public support that lets these other people give us what they want to give us. It's George Mahon knowing that back in Lubbock, his constituents are quasi-convinced that the space program is a good thing." In those days we were in the guns-and-butter era, when people were actually saying, "How can you spend money on space when you have people starving on the ground?" The fact is that we were rolling so fast and doingthings and our interest was to keep a drumfire of positive public attention on the program and never let up on the visibility of it. There was a sense of positive movement, that the whole thing was rolling. It created a little and slowed down after Apollo. But I don't think that really negates the viability of what the planned strategy was. Obviously it's not provable, but I think we did develop a constituency in those years, and that those people are grown up now.
MAUER: And even if it's not a provable thing, if you're convinced of it, and it you convince people like George Mahon that it's true, then the way NASA will relate to congressmen like George Mahon will be very different than if there isn't this perception.
DUFF: I also think, and I've said this in other places, that you should never get it in your head that public relations will get your budget passed. That's too near term. Public relations is a long-term building of understanding and positive regard. I think the real success of Apollo public relations is reflected in the way people feel about the space program today. The Challenger accident drew from the bank of positive feelings about the space program and about NASA and about the astronauts that was build up back in the days when people--kids, youngsters, young people watched television from the moon. The generation that is voting today is the Apollo generation, the young voters, and congressmen.
MAUER: What about the Apollo 204 fire? How did you contrast that, from a public affairs point of view, with the Challenger?
DUFF: I want to think about that. But I would say, and I've said this many times, the Apollo 204 fire is what gave us the open program. That may seem like a very strange thing to say, but sometimes--an open program requires bureaucratic courage, bureaucratic--courage sounds too editorial, but self-assurance. Sometimes you can't make those high risk decisions unless you know what the dow side is. I think the Apollo fire taught us how bad it can get if you don't have a good public affairs program. And it isn't just a good public affairs program, the product, it's a good public affairs program in the implementation. People must understand that we have a policy and a program and it's a good program. It's well thought out and we won't change it just because we have a bad day. The fire taught a whole generation of NASA people how bad ut can get. No matter how good you are, what a hot shot you are, how clever you are or what a good engineer you are, if you burn up three astronauts, you age going to pay, and you need everything for you that you can get. The worst thing you can have is no friends--not only no friends, but no informed critics. It's open season. Because the agency was young [at the time of the fire] they dropped the drawbridge. They pulled the shutters shut, went inside, and imploded. Thepressures from the outside were just incredible, and later, with Challenger--it doesn't seem too bad but we say lost eighteen solid months of effort, just trying to explain what happened. My job was made easier because I never had to tell Chris Kraft how bad it could get. I never had to tell Bob Gilruth.
MAUER: Is that one of the reasons that you think Gilruth was such a strong supporter that you could go and--
DUFF: That's right, the fire. They literally had been through the fire. Kraft, the engineers, who would probably in another role, in another place, have been very skeptical of public relations or a public affairs program, really saw what it's like at the cutting edge.