Interviewee: Mr. James Webb

Interviewers: Dr. David DeVorkin, Dr. Joseph Tatarewicz

and Ms. Linda Ezell

Date: March 22, 1985


DR. DEVORKIN: We can help by indicating that there is a need. The NASA history office has done a marvelous job in its different programs, in its different writing projects, to identify documentary sources. Even before Homer Newell wrote his book Beyond The Atmosphere we realized that Newell's papers themselves, which were deposited at the history office, were one of the single most important collections to understand the growth of space science.

MR. WEBB: That's right. And yet I never realized until I read his book that he had not understood the program that I laid out for him and put 100 million dollars into.

DEVORKIN: He had not understood it?

WEBB: He had not understood it, and he and (Tom) Smull clearly, from what Newell says in his book, didn't really try to carry the program out in the way that I thought they were carrying it out. I had to finally take it away from them and do some of it toward the end of my regime myself.

DEVORKIN: Would that be something that you would want to talk about with us when the time comes to talk about university relations?

WEBB: I would, but I wouldn't do it in just those terms. (*See Appendix 1)

DEVORKIN: Understood. How can you guide us to understand the terms?

WEBB: Well, the first thing to do is read my letters to George Low. I express there that it was a great disappointment to me to realize that I hadn't convinced them of the importance of doing the thing the way we had laid it out.

DEVORKIN: That's a good example.

WEBB: To a certain extent, they wanted to re-present the universities back to NASA, and to have NASA modify its way of working to what the universities wanted. I was trying to modify the universities so as to learn to work with NASA and with other agencies like NASA, without distorting their major objectives as universities.

DR. TATAREWICZ: Homer Newell and Tom Smull very much believed that NASA ought to --

WEBB: Use the universities the way they had strength and wanted to be used.

Tatarewicz: But they also wanted NASA to look like NSF to the universities. The universities were comfortable in relating to NSF in certain ways, and Newell's papers and the university program papers that I have seen seem to indicate that they consciously tried to adopt NSF ways of doing business.

WEBB: But you see, NSF proved itself that it couldn't use its own ways to drill Moho. The business of building a great big spacecraft to go the moon or building Moho is just so entirely different than what the NSF had been doing heretofore that they had to change their way of doing things like that. And that was what I was about, to get them to change.

TATAREWICZ: To get NSF to change?

WEBB: No, to get the universities to change. I went to see George Beade, who was president of the University of Chicago, and said, "George, do you want to double the size of your graduate departments in the major disciplines that relate to physical science and space?" He said, "What are we supposed to pay for that?"

I said, "It's very simple. You're supposed to establish some milestones that can show your progress, adopt the guidelines that you and your associates want for this university, and then you're supposed to advise us when you pass one of your own milestones. That's all. We want you to go strongly into things that you feel are important, because our payoff and benefit comes from expanding the number of able minds at the graduate and post-graduate levels."

DEVORKIN: So that's how the NASA traineeships and the NASA fellowships were designed: not to be NASA project oriented, but rather in terms of university projects, that were used at the discretion of the universities?

WEBB: That's right. And to a certain extent they were designed to break the lock that the the Ivy League had on the very bright graduate students in the country. If you followed the old system, before NASA, of having every person who benefited from federal funds for predoctoral education have a freedom of choice, they'd all apply to Harvard, MIT and Cal Tech, be turned down, ultimately have to go to Oklahoma or Arkansas or Louisiana, and then feel like second class citizens.

We turned it around and said, "These universities should take care of the discharge of the responsibility to choose the graduate students in whom they want to invest their strength."

So we would provide our money to the institutiton, and they would choose the graduate students. Another collatoral benefit came about: they could then go out and hire a first class professor because he knew he had graduate students to work with. That's the kind of thinking we were doing.

TATAREWICZ: I want to ask about Homer Newell in the Office of Space Science, and Smull in, first, Grants and Contracts, and later University Affairs Office. Did they seem to you to enthusiastically adopt this method of distributing predoctoral fellowships, by giving a certain number of billets to the institution and letting the institution do the choosing? Did they fight you on that?

WEBB: I don't remember in detail. They wouldn't have thought it up and used it. But primarily they were not so much concerned about that, as they were about having in the field of physics and astronomy a committee of the best physicists and the best astronomers all over the United States, to advise NASA and become experimenters on NASA's programs. They wanted this university relationship to foster the participation of these very able people.

In addition to that, which I was for, I wanted to see some universities like the University of Michigan, who were the best in the country at that time on sensing of earth phenomena from satellites, to take the lead and increase that strength. We'd furnish the money. I went up for their 150th anniversary luncheon, and they had some of their top people -- vice president for development and so on -- sitting at the table. They said, "Now, if you really want to develop this field, we'll get a committee. We'll get this man from Cal Tech and this man from Chicago and --"

I said, "Oh no, not with NASA money. I want to see what the University of Michigan can do. I want to see you get your economists and your historians and your physicists and your electronics people and be able to say to the President of the United States or the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, this is the best that our university can do on this subject at this time."

I wanted them to learn how to deal with big subjects by stretching their total institution, rather than having the disciplines organized below the university level or beyond the university level.

TATAREWICZ: When you used the facilities grants of the Sustaining University Program to construct bricks and mortar spaces within which various disciplines could be represented, did you try to get the social sciences and the physical sciences together?

WEBB: I went to Berkeley and spent three days with Roger Heynes, the president, in his house. We built a space laboratory. It would be multidisciplinary. We built enough space in that for the associated disciplines to come and have their offices, so they'd at least meet in the rest room and pass in the hall and so forth.

    Roger asked the dean of the school of public administration to come and talk with the two of us about it, and he refused to do it! He said, "We run our own school here."

TATAREWICZ: Who was that?

WEBB: I've forgotten.

DEVORKIN: We can find out.

WEBB: It isn't important for you to find it out! It's only important for you to think about how that can be overcome!

DEVORKIN: How what can be overcome?

WEBB: How this kind of inability to get multidisciplinary work done on a campus can be overcome, rather than always working through disciplinary committees. You see, you've got the physicists here and the astronomers here, and the chemists over here -- somebody in the government has got to tie it all together. I want more people thinking at the university level about how to tie it all together.

DEVORKIN: You saw NASA as the agent to tie all of that together?

WEBB: No, sir. I saw myself as an actor on the stage, as administrator of NASA, for that period. I wanted to do what I could. Not that it was my primary objective. I wasn't the National Science Foundation or the Department of Education and so forth. But I determined to use my resources, in getting my work done, in such a way as to forward some of these other objectives. And this is what Homer objected to. You'll find in his book the phrase, where I said to him one day, "I want to accomplish more than one thing with each thing I do. I want to accomplish two or three things in every major undertaking I have."

    Newell objected to that. His objective was to get those university scientists, physicists and lunar scientists in the NASA program as experimenters and as advisors on the Advisory Committee in that field.

TATAREWICZ: He believed very much in the individual disciplines as integral units. Did you have any objection to the fact that space science at headquarters was organized along disciplinary lines?

WEBB: No. I was the one who did it. I put the Space Science and Applications together and separated it from Flight. When I went there, it was under the Director of Flight Systems, Abe Silverstein.

DEVORKIN: You broke it out from that?

WEBB: That's right.

TATAREWICZ: From under Silverstein?

WEBB: I put Applications with it. I had the advice of some awfully good people about that; that wasn't just a hare brained scheme that I had.

TATAREWICZ: Who were your advisors on that?

WEBB: Well, Lloyd Berkner was certainly one of them. First of all, participating in the decision and knowing they had a to live with it were Dryden and Seamans. People I knew at NSI, AEC and NAS.

TATAREWICZ: The way science was treated at NASA was a longstanding problem with the Space Science Board. They certainly didn't appreciate Space Science being under Space Flight Development. Did you and Berkner talk about this personally?

WEBB: Oh yes. Many times on many occasions, and with many others. Berkner and I had a sort of relationship that started when I came up here in 1932, flying over at Anacostia, in which we talked about all kinds of things. We were friends. When I'd come to New York I usually spent the night there. We had dinner and talked over things. He'd come to Dallas, where he was director of Texas Instruments, and he would stop in Oklahoma City. We had collaborated for many years in basic areas that we felt were important for the country.

But I talked to a lot of other people too, you understand.

DEVORKIN: You mentioned Chicago. Did you talk to people there in particular? They had a very early and very large program in space physics, with John Simpson and people like that.

WEBB: I am not sure, on the policy of joining Space Science and Application. I got to know Simpson. He was one of my close collaborators. Every six months or so I had John Simpson come to town and spend an hour or two with me, just the two of us. I've always had a few people to talk to -- Sam Silver, of Berkeley. I didn't try to close myself off from these working scientists. I wanted to get to know them, understand what they were trying to do, and give them a framework in which they could do it better.


WEBB: I want to make one point clear. I'm not sure I fully understand what Newell has written in his book in every case, so I'm not trying to criticize him. I'm only saying that I was unaware, until I read his book, that there was this lack of enthusiasm in that section for carrying out the Sustaining University Program as we laid it out.

DEVORKIN: Did the University Program apply in areas other than in space science, like in engineering?

WEBB: Well, first of all, when I became administrator the system was for the Space Science Committee of the Academy of Sciences to fly to Washington -- a lot of them on the "Red Eye Special" -- sit around a table all day and advise, and then take the Red Eye Special back the next day. I changed that. I said, "If you're going to be in this important committee for us, you will have to devote at least three days a month to this work, and we will pay you for it."

    The Academy went along with that. We got the committee members to visit the manufacturers where the experiments were being manufactured, the laboratories where NASA scientists were working on them, and got them much more involved in understanding what it took to have a successful flight experiment.

That was the first move we made. Then along with some of the others like Hugh Dryden, we did the same thing for the Academy of Engineering. We said, "We will establish a Space Engineering Board, and again, you've got to put in a certain amount of work and we'll pay you for it."

We later started to seek ways to do the same thing with the Academy of Public Administration. We really furnished the seed money that formed that academy. So you had the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Engineering, and an Academy of Administration; the three essential legs to hold up the stool of effective performance.

DEVORKIN: We would be very interested to know more about the Space Engineering Board. How do you suggest we go about this?

WEBB: Talk to Dr. Seamans first. Or you might start with Dr. Frank Press, who was president of the National Academy of Sciences and who was very active in this. There was also another man who was head of Carnegie Mellon until recently, was head of the National Science Foundation -- Guy Stever -- there are a few people like that around town. Fred Seitz, who was president of the Academy and has been involved in all of this, has recently chaired a panel of the National Academy of Sciences to look at civil aviation. He sent me two or three days ago a copy of his report. He was president of Rockefeller University after he left the Academy. He's a most distinguished and able man. Incidentally, in the 1950's when we got working on the Frontiers of Science Foundation of Oklahoma, the businessmen who supported it would come and fly around to many of these laboratories -- Bell Labs, Oak Ridge and so forth -- and meet the scientists. We decided that if we wanted to really get some interest in Oklahoma, then at some we point we ought to devote a whole day in the biggest auditorium in the state to having young people hear from prominent scientists.

We got Mervin Kelly, who was head of Bell Telephone Laboratories, to work with us. He brought Fred Seitz to Oklahoma for I think three weeks there with us. They produced the secretary of the Nobel Committee. Kelly also produced Bill Baker and Lee DuBridge -- the very best people you have in the country -- and brought them there for a one day discussion of science with the high school seniors of Oklahoma, who were brought in by bus from all over the state.

But what I'm saying is that these relationships are not created overnight. My relation to Fred Seitz goes back to 1955 or '56, when this took place, before Sputnik.

DEVORKIN: This is when you were in Oklahoma, and part of the work you were doing in Frontiers of Science was generating this support?

WEBB: Yes, but we were trying to show the business and other leaders the great importance of strong universities in basic research. That's correct.

TATAREWICZ: You occasionally would attend meetings of the Space Science Board. I'm curious how you felt about the way in which they conducted their business. You mentioned that you didn't want them to just fly in on the Red Eye Special, sit down and discuss things, and then hand NASA advice as to what it should do in science, which is one way the board had operated. How did they change as a result of the increasing contact with the actual work of NASA?

WEBB: Well, if you're administrator of a thing like NASA, you don't come into a meeting and say, "Now, let me tell you how I want this run."

    You come in and you learn what you can about what they're doing and how they're doing it. You talk with people like Berkner, like Harry Hess who was later chairman, with a number of other very able people, and develop some idea about a possible hypothesis for change. Then you ask, "How can we get this perfected?" You test the hypothesis. Then you have to have enough confidence to put it into effect.

What we did at NASA was to have the NASA University Conference....

TATAREWICZ: NASA University Programs Conference?

WEBB: Something like that. At this conference we discussed all the things we felt we'd like to do with all these people from the university world -- maybe two or three thousand of them -- we would have them come in and listen to all this and see what ideas they generated. Then we created an advisory committee, or a study committee, that met here for an extended period, a number of weeks. They would make recommendations, go home for 30 or 60 days, then come back and see if they still agreed with their previous recommendations. We were working on things like that.

DEVORKIN: Did you find that any particular structure for these conferences worked better than others? You must have wanted to get them together and let what happened, happen.

WEBB: The thing that worked best was to get good people involved in the things that had to be done.

DEVORKIN: You felt responsible for identifying those good people?

WEBB: Yes, sir, I did. In and out of NASA.

DEVORKIN: Did you have dissension inside of NASA at any time about the kinds of people to bring in on the outside, especially in scientific relations?

WEBB: Well, bear in mind I wasn't trying to pick experiments. We had committees and we had individual scientists. We had Goddard Space Flight Center, and Jastrow and his group in New York. I wasn't trying to really form a judgement as to which scientists should fly which experiments. I just didn't get into that. I tried to make sure that good people were in charge of the work and could make those decisions on a basis that would give the United States space program the best value for the time, effort and money put in.

TATAREWICZ: Someone called Jastrow's institute in New York an interesting experiment in finding a new way for government laboratories to relate to the scientific community, almost laundering it through Columbia University in a sense, or at least creating the environment that didn't give people the sense that they were relating directly to the government agency. Did you follow Jastrow's activities?

WEBB: It was the magnet that attracted. I went up a couple of times to look at what they were doing. I saw Jastrow down here; heard him in briefing sessions. But I was not trying to form a personal judgment as to whether his institute was doing exactly what NASA wanted done. That was somebody else; Homer Newell, Bob Seamans, other scientists, the Space Science Board. I wanted to know what they were doing. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to have an impression. But I didn't want to try to form the final judgment.

DEVORKIN: About this idea of the magnet that attracted in the model of that institute: we could see similar things in Willard Libby's Institute at UCLA, and in others which didn't have the same prominence as the Goddard Institute, and which were not directly associated with NASA as an appendage as, say, Jastrow's was an appendage of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Did you see them as the same forms of magnets that would attract people to these kinds of problems at university centers?

WEBB: You can't generalize about that. Willard Libby had been on the Atomic Energy Commission. I knew him personally. I had many discussions with him. He had the idea when he went to California that if we'd just turn over the NASA money to UCLA, about 20 million dollars a year, he'd organize the institute and do the whole thing. You didn't have to have anybody else in science. It was just like GE, who wrote us a letter and said, "We'll put the man on the moon, just give us a contract. You won't have to have all these centers and activities." But you clearly couldn't give one company a contract to put a man on the moon, or you couldn't give one university the exclusive scientific cloak. There were too many people.

We were trying extremely hard to get JPL to take graduate students from Cal Tech, as well as other universities, to involve them in their planetary program. We had a hard time to even get them to take people from Cal Tech, their own institution!

    But NASA was always driving toward opening up opportunties for people who wanted to do space science, wherever they were, Pittsburgh, Ohio, Chicago.

DEVORKIN: Could I ask about GE for a moment? Was that Porter who wrote that letter?

WEBB: No. It was not Porter. He hobnobbed with the scientists. This was a French name, La Pierre.

DEVORKIN: I was just interested in Porter himself. Your mentioning GE made me think of him, of course, dating all the way back to the Hermes Project and all of that. He was still very active in '58, '60, and through the sixties formulating what science would do in space. I was just wondering if you ever worked with Porter.

WEBB: Oh yes, I knew him. But I don't remember his advocating any specific experiments. I remember him as a hard working member, accepted by the scientific community, who was awfully glad to have him on committees and trusted his judgment.

DEVORKIN: Did you find that you could use him as a liaison with the universities?

WEBB: No. I didn't try because I didn't have that kind of contact with him.

TATAREWICZ: The JPL-Cal Tech relationship is kind of a famous subject. Almost everybody who does a history of JPL in any way refers to it.


TATAREWICZ: Or NASA, yes. Where was the problem between JPL and Cal Tech, in terms of getting graduate students to interact more with the lab? Did the lab not want Cal Tech graduate students, or did Cal Tech not want their grad students to have their training at JPL?

WEBB: I can't tell. I don't think you can say that was uniformly true over every professor or every section of JPL. The fact is that there was not a warm loving atmosphere at JPL for Cal Tech students who might be interested in space. They felt it was easier, and more profitable and more productive for them to do the work there, than to take the time and effort to work with graduate students, even from their own institution.

DEVORKIN: So it wasn't a question that JPL was always a hierarchical organization so very different from that at Cal Tech that the two were just a mismatch in any kind of subsequent tradeoff?

WEBB: They were very conscious of where the power to act lay. They wanted to retain the power to act on things that they thought were important to them.

DEVORKIN: They wouldn't have the same form of control over the graduate students?

WEBB: Well, a graduate student who was unhappy at JPL would be telling somebody at Cal Tech.


TATAREWICZ: JPL always liked to do as much as possible in-house. I'm wondering if you think that was a factor.

WEBB: It was a small factor. The main factor, I think, was that they felt that their group knew better how to do the things that had to be done than anybody else. They wanted the freedom to do it, and with the university background, they wanted what they called mutuality in a contract. They wanted to be able to say "no" to a project that NASA needed to have done to round out its lunar and planetary program. Otherwise NASA would have no lunar and planetary laboratory to turn to. So we felt that if they were going to occupy such an important place in our sphere, they ought to do, in addition to the things they wanted to do, those things that NASA needed to have done to round out the program. And that was the basic point.

DEVORKIN: Is that adequately represented in Koppes's history of JPL?

WEBB: Well, I got a nice letter from Pickering after the book was published (three months ago) in which he thanked me for my part in the program and said, "I thought at one time you were one of the main problems, but I've concluded that we couldn't have done the program without you and I want to congratulate you". I wrote him back in the same vein.

DEVORKIN: Did you show us that letter?

WEBB: I'll be glad to if I haven't.

DEVORKIN: We'll check that. We're still trying to keep up with all the boxes you've given us to generate our inventory. We're embarrassed from time to time that we can't immediately tell you what we have yet of yours. The relationship with the different centers is extremely important, especially when the centers themselves have university relations. The model of JPL-Cal Tech seemed to be a very unique problem.

WEBB: Well, being a university laboratory they didn't have, for instance, a very good way of keeping track of the hand tools.

DEVORKIN: You mean the inventory?

WEBB: The hand tools, the tools that they were using in assembling spacecraft. That wasn't important to them. What was important was that the spacecraft fly and get to where it was going and send there information back. They were brilliant on the deep space network. Nobody had ever done a better job of communications than JPL. But they didn't keep track of their hand tools, and the minute you have excess cost for hand tools that are slipping out of the factory into somebody's pocket, you get hollers from the Congress and everybody else.

DEVORKIN: You're talking about accountability.

WEBB: That's right. A government agency has to operate differently than they were accustomed to operating.

TATAREWICZ: Did they not appear sensitive to the need for those kinds of procedures? They seemed to resist them?

WEBB: They did. They wanted to run things their own way. They wanted the project manager to have the final say, in collaboration with whoever they chose, Pickering. We wanted more the general manager type of person who had authority and responsibility over what went on there. Of course, there's always a certain personal equation in these things. Pickering was a very vigorous advocate of space all over the world. He was writing, publishing and traveling, and we didn't object to that. But we wanted somebody in charge when he wasn't there.

TATAREWICZ: So that's the cause of the trouble?

WEBB: Oh, all of these are little things. There's no simple thing that you can point to and say, this accounts for the difficulty.

DEVORKIN: Based upon this discussion, should we be looking into the influence that the building and siting of the much newer Johnson Space Flight Center in Texas had upon the various research programs and educational programs in Texas, at Rice, at the University of Texas? There must have been a direct influence there. Is there something we should be looking at to understand the history of that setup?

WEBB: There are a lot of things much more important than that. Texas has gone ahead to the extent that Hans Mark has gone down there to be the president of it, and the state has become the focal point for Bobby Inman and that whole operation, where you have collaborative research engaged in by a very well financed group of companies. The University of Texas is very interested in it.

DEVORKIN: But didn't it start with NASA and the Johnson Space Flight Center?

WEBB: Well, Rice was a pretty important institution before Johnson went there. One of the reasons Johnson went there was because a lot of very able scientists were there connected with the oil industry. We could get the people we needed. Plus they offered us a thousand acres of land, which was no small thing.

    I don't want to be flip with you. Those things can be looked into but they aren't going to prove anything very much, because the Manned Spacecraft Center is there, Bobby Inman and Hans Mark are there. The University of Texas has got a lot of money and they're going to be going ahead. They're like a snowball rolling down the hill and you're patting your hands and saying, "Here she comes, boys" and you think you're doing something about it. You aren't doing anything about it. The snowball is going to run whether you clap your hands or not!

But there are very important things, where the decisions for the future are hanging in the balance. I don't think any decisions about Houston are hanging in the balance, that I know, except how to build the Shuttle and how to move on from there to the next thing, like a Space Station.

DEVORKIN: Not at this time. But in 1962, '63, there certainly were decisions.

WEBB: Sure.

DEVORKIN: We're trying to gain from you the insight to identify what we should be going after to understand and better appreciate the evolution of that most important issue.

WEBB: Well, I can give you a very simple formula that I've stated many times publicly. Everybody tries to look at the politics. What happened was that the Manned Space Flight Group was centered at Langley, out at Goddard, and had to expand very rapidly to do the programs that we had to have done. We had navigable waters up the Mississippi River, we had navigable water reaching Wisconsin, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher (von Braun) and his group were. And this equipment had to be big equipment. The old Chrysler tank plant was at New Orleans, the biggest building under one roof in the United States at that time. Mississippi had a lot of vacant land nearby where we could build a test stand, because the noise would damage people and structures unless they were a certain distance away under atmospheric conditions; the Cape was on the water.

    Now, the first thing we did was look for a launching site, and concluded after very careful investigation that we couldn't do any better than the Cape. We wanted to go further north, but the further north we went the more we overflew Africa before we got into space, and we didn't want to run that risk. So we went to the Cape and took advantage of the Army installations there, bought $100 million dollars worth of land, all that was available, and established the launching site.

So now we had the Gemini capsule being built in St. Louis, the Saturn boosters being constructed and tested at Huntsville, and the Saturn boosters being assembled at New Orleans where you could get a good labor market. There wasn't good labor everywhere. And we had the Cape coming along.

    So then we had to find one more center, which was the Manned Spacecraft Center. We looked around Florida, the Cape, all that area that's on the water, and decided that the ability of NASA to obtain labor, scientists and to recruit people to really build up a very strong, large installation on a clear lake, on water, was there. At the same time we were offered a thousand acres of land by the Rice University people.

But we were filling in a gap that already included Huntsville, New Orleans, the Mississppi test facility and Cape Kennedy, when we chose Houston.

DEVORKIN: In many places a common theme emerges which is, of course, the influence of Johnson and the role of Johnson in establishing that site. Should we be looking again at what everybody says?

WEBB: I wouldn't waste my time with it. I mean, I went down there with Kennedy and Johnson, and Johnson made quite a speech at the back of the audience somewhere along the line, saying that he was going to be sure that everything that Texas expected to get out of the space program came their way. Kennedy turned around to me and said, "What's this all about?"

See, it's inconsequential in terms of the total accomplishments that we had.

DEVORKIN: But what has been going on in Texas is a whole social movement, it's a whole new cultural movement that has come up postwar -- Berkner's going down there after his work in Washington. The very influential growth and development of a whole new campus for University of Texas, that was supposed to be aligned completely to science and technology, was to be a leading thrust. There was an attitude, a drive, a vision --

WEBB: I think you can go into that all you want, but I'm more interested in how you move from where we are on the Space Station to an operable, working, internationally participated in Space Station that is as successful as Apollo was. I'm more interested in the allocation of a large number of able minds to this question of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative. Those are the two things that are really important. The Shuttle won't amount to much unless you move on to the next stage.

DEVORKIN: These are the contemporary issues in your mind today that you see as important and that should be treated by the best people in this society?

WEBB: That's right.

DEVORKIN: But you're not addressing that to us for the purposes of oral history.

WEBB: I'm saying that any data you have that helps to make that decision, is very good for you to make available and to urge people to take advantage of.

DEVORKIN: That would be an unprecedented use of historical data. We'd be very glad to search for avenues and vehicles by which to make the data available in that manner. Certainly ultimately we all strive to make society better.

WEBB: But you see, what you haven't said anything about, if you know about it, is that Lyndon Johnson and Thomas, who was chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee, hated each other. Most people thought that I had told Thomas what we were doing. I hadn't told him; I'd talked to President Kennedy. President Kennedy called him up one day about two or three things he wanted done, and said, "I've got these things I think are pretty important that I wish you'd help me with." Thomas said, "Well, I don't know, Mr. President. I'm not sure I can do that." Kennedy put it like this, "You know Jim Webb is going to put that space center in Houston?"

    "Well, in that case, Mr. President, you can count on me." From then on he felt he had a commitment from the President.

    Johnson wasn't in on that statement at all.

DEVORKIN: So you're saying that on a number of occasions, this being one of them, you had direct contact with Kennedy without Johnson's knowlege?

WEBB: Oh yes! All the time, but I was careful to urge each of them to keep the other informed. Sometimes each asked me to perform that function.

DEVORKIN: In the April or May document that Kennedy prepared, he directed Johnson to make an assessment of the space program. He said that Johnson should work with you, McNamara and others to bring about what later came to be the Webb-McNamara Memorandum. Was this indeed the situation, that Kennedy had been in contact with you directly?

WEBB: Yes. Hugh Sidey wrote in his magazine that I was really nonplussed. I was asked to talk to the President about space; I was there in the Cabinet room when in comes Sidey and the President starts asking us questions in Sidey's presence.

    I said, what I don't want to do is have one member of the press thought by the others to have an inside track.

DEVORKIN: That was a very unusual thing to do.

WEBB: I had to very, very carefully weigh my words in answers to the President, and it was when that broke up that he said, "It's very important to get something done."

It was the next day, I think, that Ed Welsh must have written the memorandum to Johnson. But then McNamara and I moved right in and wrote the program.

DEVORKIN: As this meeting of April 14, 1962 has been related by the people who wrote Journey To Tranquility,1 that meeting included yourself, Dryden, Kennedy, Sorensen, Wiesner, Bell, and Hugh Sidey when he came in. It did not include Johnson, McNamara, and Welsh. Now, Johnson and Welsh were the two inside advocates of space.

WEBB: I don't remember that Wiesner and these other people that you mention were there. Things escape your memory. I don't think there's any particular significance to it.

DEVORKIN: Wiesner was trying to get the President to slow down on everything. I'd be interested to know if you recall what Bell's, in the Bureau of the Budget, role was? Was he an advocate to move on Apollo?


TATAREWICZ: Wiesner was certainly well known to be critical of manned space flight. He thought that more money ought to be put into unmanned scientific satellites. At what point were you convinced that a major NASA initiative should be undertaken? At what point where you convinced that that major initiative should be a lunar landing, rather than one of all the other possible goals that were floating around in the agency?

WEBB: Well, first of all, I went to the President with a very carefully thought-through memorandum, which is published by John Logsdon, but he did not give me the go-ahead sign. He said, "Go ahead with the big engines and boosters," but nothing for the spacecraft.

I was busily getting ready to present this to the Congress and go ahead and include it in the budget, when all this business came up about Gagarin's flight, and all the things that politicians get excited about, Bay of Pigs and so forth. Johnson had been asked by the President to study this question, although I was very careful with the President not to get the Space Council into things that he didn't want them to get into. I mean, I was very, very careful on everything to ask Kennedy what he wanted me to do. He had a lot of people, including the Vice President and all the others around -- Jerry Weisner, economists -- and he always told me what he wanted me to do, working with the Director of the Budget. Johnson did the same thing when he was President.

They were not really expecting the Vice President in the Space Council to work up a space program that they could buy. They wanted to be sure that they didn't lose their control of the situation.

But Johnson called these hearings. He got three people from outside to come in. He got senior Senators and people from down on the Hill to come up. Finally after three days of pressing -- they were pressing me very hard to agree as to what I would undertake to do -- I was very careful not to agree.

The last thing that happened was the Senators and others sort of came into agreement that they would support this kind of program. I finally said, "All right, we'll undertake it."

And I walked across the park with Bob Seamans and said, "Are you prepared to undertake a contract to land a man on the moon?" He said, "I think we've got the technology to do it, and I am." He was the general manager of the agency. He had been selected by Eisenhower and Keith Glennan. Dryden was with us, but I turned to Seamans as general manager and said, "Are you prepared to take this contract?"

You've got to bear in mind that at every step of this way from then on, I had to have something I could point to if we found Apollo impossible to do. Nobody really knew that you could do it. On the other hand if you finished Mercury, and you did the rendezvous business with Gemini, even if we thought Apollo was impossible we still would have learned a tremendous amount about how to fly and work in space. That is what I was after.

So all the way through this program, something that very few people have understood is that I maintained the capability to stop and show that we had learned most of the important things we had to operate in space.

TATAREWICZ: Aside from the capability argument, that is, that what you were after was to develop the techniques and the wherewithal to be able to do it, were there any other subsidiary goals that would have justified the program, even if the lunar landing would have turned out to be impossible within the time frame?

WEBB: We had to learn to operate with big machines. Gemini and Titan were big machines. Apollo and Saturn 5 were big machines; Saturn 5 used liquid hydrogen. It was perfectly clear to the technologist then that they had to learn to use liquid hydrogen as fuel, and this was very different than other fuels. For one thing, if you had a leak it went up instead of going down. You had to learn to start and stop these engines. You had to lubricate them with the hydrogen itself. There was no lubricant that wouldn't freeze in liquid hydrogen. So you had an awful lot to learn about big machines, about systems for operating big machines, and about how to control these machines in space accurately, for rendezvous docking.

DEVORKIN: In the same vein, in your early thinking (March of '61) -- as one scholar found in your letters at the Truman Library especially in letters to Johnson during this time -- you discussed what the role of science should be in the Apollo mission, how science was to fit in, and the value of committing to a scientific mission. You seemed to say that one of the values was that if we didn't win the race, we could point to the science that was done as a valuable product, no matter what.

WEBB: Well, I didn't think of it as something to point to, I thought of it as something to learn. Here was this vast area of space that we really didn't know very much about. We thought we did. We thought it was a void for a long time. It turned out to have a lot of things in it -- plasmas, fluxes, particles, micrometeorites -- we had to learn scientifically what the facts were about this large area and the bodies in it. We had to learn to operate a functioning system that could live and exist and get its work done out there.

DEVORKIN: So that is under the rubric of living and working in space; we have to understand the environment. But at the time, of course, you were actively pushing the program, selling it, and using what you could to convince Kennedy. In Journey To Tranquility it is indicated that Wiesner succeeded in getting Kennedy to say that one could go ahead with your program as long as you didn't link it to science publicly. Yet we wanted as well to use science as a driver. How was this reconciled?

WEBB: Well, first of all, Dryden, Seamans and I were closely and intimately involved in the important things about this program and the important people involved in it. We knew what they were doing, and we were possibly both helping them and guiding them.

Now, in dealing with the politicians, though, you couldn't really count on that kind of a thing; you can't argue science or engineering with a politician. So our technique with Kennedy was very simple. I'd say, "Mr. President, you asked me to come and take this job, and I have taken it. I'm working at it. We're making progress. Now if you and I stick together, we'll probably both come out all right. If you want these kibbitzers to run the program, I don't know how you're going to come out."

DEVORKIN: How did he react to that?

WEBB: In every case, after he'd thought it over a little bit he said, "I'm going to stick with you."

There wasn't any scientific argument on looking for some alternate science. It was a hardboiled examination of how you could conduct the program so as to succeed, and if we ran into an insuperable obstacle, you still would have learned a great deal by it.

TATAREWICZ: You couldn't talk science with politicians. Could you talk politics with the scientists?

WEBB: I never tried.

TATAREWICZ: There's an awful lot of criticism that the money that was going into Apollo could have been spent better on scientific research. Of course, Phil Abelson was perhaps the loudest.

WEBB: He was. But he has changed his tune a little bit.

TATAREWICZ: But at the time, he was a force to be contended with.

WEBB: Sure he was. I never tried to argue with him. I got the best scientists we could have working with us, and I always pointed to them as competent, capable men. I kept in direct personal touch with people like Simpson, Silver and a number of these clearly superior scientists who were working on scientific matters. I tried to make sure that they understood what we were doing, and that they had projects that could succeed.

DEVORKIN: How did you treat, though, a person who had the name of a Van Allen, at the time? And of course, above all Van Allen's name was one of the most visible names in the early space program.

WEBB: But in the early days he wasn't quite as vocal as he had been since then.


WEBB: I treated him with perfect courteousy as I would anybody. But I didn't let him make NASA policy.

DEVORKIN: He was, of course, one of the drivers in the early Explorer and Pioneer programs.

WEBB: Sure.

DEVORKIN: So what you're saying is that he was so darned busy doing his science that at least at that time --

WEBB: He wasn't sure that these large machines weren't going to be needed. One thing about these scientists is, they couldn't prove their position.

DEVORKIN: Is this a good place to stop?

WEBB: Yes.

DEVORKIN: Thank you very much for this session.

1 Hugo Young, Journey to Tranquility, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1970).

Webb 3 || WEBB 5

Rev. 09/06/96

© 1996 National Air and Space Musuem