Webb Soon Challenged

James Webb faced an almost immediate challenge to his freedom to man­age NASA as he saw appropriate, especially in the context of the preva­lent NASA-Air Force tensions. The first attempt in July 1960 to launch a Mercury capsule atop an Atlas booster had ended in an explosion. The cause of this failure had been localized to the area where the spacecraft and the capsule were joined. Since the Air Force retained responsibility for booster performance and launching while NASA was responsible for the spacecraft and the overall mission, this meant that both organizations were intimately involved in attempting to correct whatever had caused the failure. A “quick fix” using an improvised steel band was adopted. The NASA top management had agreed to this approach before Webb took office, but the Air Force remained extremely concerned about the possibil­ity of another major accident. There had been a highly visible Atlas failure on December 15, 1960 as NASA attempted to send a robotic spacecraft to the Moon, increasing the level of concern on the part of the Air Force. That worry was linked to the important question of what another failure would communicate about the reliability of the Atlas ICBM, a key element of the U. S. nuclear deterrent force, and thus to the credibility of the U. S. deterrent threat.21

Webb was briefed on the situation on February 18 by NASA’s Project Mercury managers, who wanted his approval for a launch of the improved Mercury-Atlas combination on February 21. Webb approved the launch, but soon after got a call from the Air Force asking him to reverse that decision. From the White House, Wiesner also expressed his opposition to going ahead. After Webb checked again with knowledgeable people both within and outside NASA, he refused to reverse his decision, although the Air Force “protested vehemently” and made its concerns known to the White House, most likely through one of Kennedy’s military aides, Air Force General Godfrey McHugh. The White House decided not to intervene in the dispute, “making the issue a major test for Webb and NASA and their credibility with the president.” The February 21 flight was a total success; Webb had passed his first challenge with flying colors.22