As the first explorers of space, astronauts garnered most of the public attention. But the sheer scale and complexity of the moon journey required many extraordinary individual contributions.
A special challenge of the Moon project was management. At its peak, more than 400,000 people in NASA, universities, and industry worked on Apollo and the supporting human and scientific exploration programs. The effort was the largest and perhaps most technically daunting engineering enterprise ever undertaken.
In 1961, President Kennedy selected James E. Webb to succeed Keith Glennan as Administrator of NASA and to guide a program that would require the talents of nearly every community in the nation. An experienced manager, attorney, and businessman, Webb had served as Director of the Bureau of the Budget and as Undersecretary of State in the Truman administration. Webb also served as president and vice president of several private firms and served on the board of directors of the McDonnell Aircraft Company.
Only three months after Webb's appointment to NASA, President John F. Kennedy declared the national goal of landing a man on the Moon before 1970. Webb served until October 1968, departing just months in advance of the historic moon landing.
Under Webb's leadership, NASA transformed space exploration from a partially-realized dream to one of the greatest American success stories.
Webb held the view that the space program was more than a race to the moon—it could also be a catalyst for strengthening the nation's universities and industry. As one example, he promoted a program to expand the supply of scientists and engineers by assisting students in obtaining advanced degrees. Through initiatives such as this, Webb expected the space program to help the country meet future challenges.
NASA, like the Department of Defense, accomplished most of its work through contracts to industry and universities. NASA dollars flowed into communities all across the nation, making many Americans direct participants in the great venture. At the peak of Apollo, NASA had 35,000 employees and over 400,000 contractors in thousands of companies and universities.
Projects Mercury and Gemini, the first American human space exploration efforts, were completed during Webb's tenure. Robotic spacecraft—Rangers, Surveyors, and Lunar Orbiters—examined the Moon in preparation for exploration by astronauts. And scientific probes were sent to Mars and Venus to extend our understanding of the solar system. Webb saw his greatest contribution in the "grand alliance" he forged among government, industry, and the academic community. He expected this collaboration to provide a lasting resource for improving local communities and for meeting the country's scientific and technical needs.
In early February 1962, Presidential Assistant George B. Kistiakowsky wagered ten dollars that John Glenn would never fly. James Webb accepted the bet, and won on February 20, 1962, when Glenn orbited the Earth three times in the 4 hour and 55 minute-long Mercury Friendship 7 flight. Messrs. Kistiakowsky and Webb autographed the twenty-dollar bill used for payment as a memento of the occasion.
James Webb retired from NASA on October 7, 1968, his 62nd birthday, with the Apollo Program well on its way to a moon landing. Four days after his retirement, the first manned Apollo flight lifted off.
On December 9, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Webb for his outstanding management of NASA.