James Webb: who was he and why did NASA name the largest space telescope in history after him?

James E. Webb, presentándole una colección de modelos de cohetes al expresidente Harry S. Truman durante una visita presidencial a la entonces recién inaugurada sede de la Nasa.

James E. Webb, presenting a collection of model rockets to former President Harry S. Truman during a presidential visit to the then newly opened NASA headquarters.

Many astronomers consider him one of the best directors the space agency has had, since under his direction he undertook one of the most impressive projects in history: the landing of a man on the Moon.

James Webb revolutionized the industry in such a way that NASA named the largest space telescope in history in his honor.

It is a ship that cost US $ 10 billion took three decades to build It was originally known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, until 2002 when it was named after the late former US official.

After its launch was postponed several times, the telescope finally began its mission this Saturday to search for the first stars that lit up the cosmos.

But who was James Webb?

A long career in public service

Born in 1906 in a small town in North Carolina, Webb earned a BA with a minor in Letters.

Later he would become second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps., where he later worked as a pilot, while also completing a postgraduate degree in Law.

Former President John Kennedy and former NASA Director James E. Webb at the White House.
Former President John Kennedy and former NASA Director James E. Webb at the White House.
Getty Images

The North Carolina began his long career in American public service in 1932 as secretary to a member of the United States House of Representatives.

During World War II he rejoined the Marine Corps, where he was in charge of an aviation command and control unit.

At the end of the war, he returned to Washington and worked in the Office of Management and Budget, before serving as undersecretary of state in the State Department from 1949 to 1952, under the government of Harry S. Truman.

In the most important position of the NSO

But the peak of his career would not come until almost 10 years later, when John F. Kennedy put him in the most important position of the space agency by appointing him administrator of NASA on February 14, 1961, in the middle of the space race between Washington and Moscow

He remained in the position for almost the entire decade of the 60s, at the head of the Apollo Program, which achieved the dream of the trip to the Moon on the part of the human being.

“Many believe that James E. Webb (…) did more for science than perhaps any other government official and that it stands to reason that the Next Generation Space Telescope bears his name,” NASA explains on its website.

One of Kennedy’s promises was to achieve take a man to the La before the late 1960s, but Webb thought the space program was more important than a political career, according to the organization.

James Webb.
James Webb.
Getty Images

Webb also believed that NASA should strike a balance between manned spaceflight and science, as this would help strengthen college education and the American aerospace industry.

His work left a decade of space science research unparalleled even today.

An “appropriate” tribute

The NASA site claims that while Webb was in command, the agency invested in the development of robotic spacecraft, which explored the lunar environment before astronauts arrived, and sent science probes to planets like Mars and Venus.

A comparison between the James Webb telescope and the Hubble telescope


When Webb retired in July 1969, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions to study stars, like the Sun, and Earth’s atmosphere.

In announcing the new name for the next-generation space telescope, former NASA Director Sean O’Keefe said in 2002 that it was “appropriate” to pay tribute to the work of James Webb.

“He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imaginations into reality. In fact, it laid the groundwork for NASA to lead one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery, “he said.

“As a result, we are rewriting textbooks today with the help of the Hubble space telescope, the Chandra X-ray observatory, and the James Webb telescope.”


Despite his achievements, some sectors consider him a controversial character.

Many critics have argued for years that Webb was complicit in discrimination against LGBTQ employees in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, as undersecretary of the US Department of State and as director of NASA.

In March 2021, in a column published by the American scientific magazine Scientific American, a group of astronomers they asked to change the name to the space telescope.

“Today it honors a man who accepted the homophobic policies of the government in the 1950s and 1960s,” they alleged.

Referring to the “positive role” played by James Webb at NASA, the signatories noted that James Webb’s legacy is “the antithesis of sleep and the feeling of freedom ”that inspires the exploration of deep time and space.

“It is regrettable, therefore, that NASA’s current plan is to launch into space this incredible instrument named after a man whose legacy is complicated at best and at worst. reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal governmentadded the group of astronomers.

After an investigation, the space agency said it had found no evidence to justify a name change.

How the Webb Telescope will view the past


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