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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of James
  Edwin WebbCourtesy NASA

The man whose name the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has chosen for the James Webb Space Telescope is not commonly linked to science. James Webb wasn't a scientist or an engineer. He was a businessman, attorney, and manager who had served as director of the Bureau of Budget and Undersecretary of State under President Harry Truman. Yet, many believe that James Webb, who was the second administrator of NASA from 1961—1968, did more for science than perhaps any other government official. Therefore, it is only fitting that the James Webb Space Telescope would be named after him.

James Edwin Webb was born in Granville County, North Carolina. He completed his college education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received a degree in education. Webb then became a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and served as a Marine Corps pilot. Afterwards, Webb studied law at the George Washington University Law School.

In 1961, when Webb was selected by then President John Kennedy to serve as the NASA administrator, he was reluctant to take the job. He thought that it might be better handled by someone with a better grasp of science or technology. However, Kennedy wanted someone with keen political insight and management skills for the position.

Webb oversaw great progress in the Space Program while serving as NASA's administrator. During Webb's tenure, NASA developed robotic spacecraft which explored the moon so that astronauts could do so later. NASA also sent scientific probes to Mars and Venus, giving Americans their first-ever view of the strange landscape of outer space. In fact, by the time Webb retired, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions to study the stars and galaxies, our own Sun and the as-yet unknown environment of space above the Earth's atmosphere.

Webb also weathered the turmoil of the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three astronauts died in a flash fire during simulation tests on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Firmly committed to getting NASA back on its feet after the setback, Webb strove to maintain support for the program. He succeeded, thus helping to pave the way to future NASA successes, such as the historic Apollo moon landing, which took place shortly after his retirement from NASA in 1968.

After retiring from NASA, Webb remained in Washington, D.C., serving on several advisory boards, including serving as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1981, he was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point for his dedication to his country.

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