Who was James Webb?
In the 1960s, the administrator of the American space agency was actively involved in the success of the Apollo mission, but his legacy is controversial. Who was James Webb?
A US government official
A career American government official best known for his role in the development of the Apollo mission. James Webb was administrator of NASA (American space agency) from 1961 to 1968. More than half a century later, the space telescope that bears his name delivered its first photos, never-before-seen shots from space , Monday, July 11. A cluster of galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago. In the United States, voices were raised to rename the telescope because of suspicions about the past of James Webb. Scientists accuse him of having participated in the persecution of homosexual people during the 1950s and 1960s.
James Webb was born in North Carolina in 1906. After graduating from law school and admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia, he began a career in public administration. Democratic Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him administrator of NASA in 1961. James Webb laid down his conditions: “I’m not going to run a one-time program. If you want me to be an administrator, it has to be a balanced program who serves the country.” The same year, President Kennedy officially announced the launch of the Apollo mission with the objective of sending a man to the Moon. The civil servant used his political skills and influence to unite around the American space program, even after the accident in 1967. The three astronauts of the first manned mission to the Moon died in the fire of the rocket’s command module.
After seven years at the head of the American space agency, James Webb resigns just months before the first successful Apollo mission. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon and uttered his famous phrase: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The success of the Apollo program is widely attributed to James Webb in the United States. The management methods of the civil servant, which made it possible to organize NASA, were then taken up in several other American federal agencies.
Lavender scare (the purple fear), Who was James Webb?
Lavender scare was a moral panic about homosexual people in the United States government which led to their mass dismissal from government service during the mid-20th century. It was thought that gay people were more susceptible to being manipulated, which could pose a threat to the country.
But behind this success, hides a much darker side, according to four American astronomers. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz and Brian Nord published a column in the Scientific American on March 1, 2021 (article in English). They demanded that the name of the latest generation space telescope be changed. They point to records proving that “Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material”.
The state official is suspected by these astronomers to have participated in what is called the “violet scare” or the “lavender scare”. Like the persecution of communists or communist relatives during the “red fear”, the “purple fear” designates a movement of persecution of homosexual people during the 1950s and 1960s. The American government organized a “witch hunt” to dismiss all homosexual people who worked in the administration.
NASA refused to change the name of its telescope. However, the scientific journal Nature revealed, on March 25, 2022, emails proving that the agency had conducted an internal investigation into James Webb and the “purple fear” (article in English). The case of Clifford Norton is mentioned. This employee appealed after being fired for “immoral, indecent and disgraceful behavior”. The person asked by the judge about this replied that it was “the practice within the agency” to fire people for “homosexual behavior”. Despite these latest revelations, the most successful space telescope ever sent into space is still named James Webb.
Photo description: Grave of James E. Webb at Arlington National Cemetery.