NASA Needs a Politician More Than a Scientist for Its Chief
NASA is still in search of an Administrator. While Rep. Jim Bridenstine awaits the full Senate vote, it would be useful to think through the qualities that are necessary to be successful as NASA’s leader. Perhaps the best example is NASA’s second administrator, James Webb, whose first 40 days on the job serve as the standard by which all his successors have been measured.
In 1961 James Webb became the Administrator for the newly formed NASA. Prior to his appointment by President Kennedy, Webb had voiced his own concern that he was not the best person for the job and that “someone who knew more about rocketry, about space, would be a better person.” Webb, an experienced manager, attorney and businessman, had served as Director of the Bureau of the Budget and as Undersecretary of State, but possessed no real expertise related to the technical tasks NASA was designed to undertake. An intelligent man, Webb didn’t initially see the big picture and how he would eventually fit in it.
What is clear now is that when President Kennedy considered Webb for the position he wasn’t worried about technical expertise. The nation’s new young president didn’t want a NASA administrator who understood orbital mechanics or rocket science, Kennedy knew that the right person for the job would need to understand something far more complicated: Washington, D.C. politics. Soviet successes in space had proven the value of space as a political tool and Kennedy’s appreciation for the political implications of successful space flights informed his decision to select Webb. On February 14, 1961 James Webb become the second NASA administrator, and history reveals that he was the right pick.
Almost immediately after starting the job, Webb faced serious political challenges. The Air Force was pressing for more involvement in the space program and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a former Senate Majority Leader and the newly appointed head of the newly formed National Space Council, sought opportunities to exercise more authority. Webb quickly leveraged his personal relationship with then Deputy Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatric, to develop a healthy synergistic partnership between the DoD and NASA. On February 23, 1961, nine days after Webb assumed the role, the DoD and NASA signed an agreement unifying their positions and creating mechanisms for future cooperation. The agreement had support from the White House and, while the Air Force and Space Council continued to press for more involvement in the space program, NASA remained in charge.
The political challenges continued. When Webb took office, he had only 45 days to review NASA’s ten-year plan designed by the Eisenhower administration, decide whether or not the plan could be accelerated, and then request additional funds with the Bureau of Budget for fiscal year 1962. After taking almost four weeks to evaluate NASA’s position, Webb requested an additional $302 million for fiscal year 1962. The Bureau of Budget subsequently approved a meager $50 million. Unsatisfied with the funds, Webb requested a meeting with President Kennedy. Aware of the President’s relationship with the budget director and the lack of his own relationship with the president, Webb briefed Vice President Johnson before the president, hoping the vice president’s pursuit of more authority over the space program would provide additional support for the budget request. After a day of briefings and supplemental support from Johnson, the president approved an additional $125.2 million in NASA funding. Increasing NASA’s budget was the first big space policy decision Kennedy made as president.
Within the first 36 days, Webb’s ability to navigate Washington allowed him to reduce bureaucratic barriers and firmly establish NASA’s leadership over the country’s space program. He was also able to increase NASA’s budget request for fiscal year 1962 by $125.2 million, allowing NASA to expedite critical programs. Immediately upon taking office, Webb set the tone for the next decade of space exploration. The success of the moon landings is due, in large part, to Webb’s experience as a policymaker, manager, and D.C insider.
Today, politics continues to be a major factor in NASA’s ability to perform. Budget disagreements, political jockeying over large projects, and generally outdated perspectives on space policy have mired U.S. space efforts. Commercial and government actors are in competition with each other over the exploration of Mars, new presidents regularly require NASA to change expensive and complex missions for political reasons, and a willingness to accept risk in an effort to innovate quickly is generally discouraged in government projects. Collectively, the U.S. is wasting money, time, and its advantage in space.
The next NASA administrator, whoever that may be, needs to be someone who can build bridges, not burn them. It also needs to be someone who possesses a contemporary appreciation for the ways in which the space domain is changing. It needs to be someone who appreciates science and the expertise of NASA engineers. It needs to be someone who will support taking calculated risks to maintain a comparative advantage. Above all, the next administrator needs to understand how to navigate the complex political environment of Washington.
As Webb has written, his strategy as NASA’s administrator was to “end uncertainty, to make unmistakably clear…support for manned space flight, to define necessary additions to the budget…and to establish personal and official relationships conducive to effective leadership.” It has been 57 years since Webb become NASA’s administrator but his goals are still relevant today. Unfortunately, the world’s premier aeronautics and space organization is too often a pawn in a political chess match, preventing some of the world’s best and brightest from accomplishing many of the organization’s founding objectives. This is unlikely to change unless NASA finds another James Webb.