From Publishers Weekly
Journalist Bizony's excellent corrective to NASA's mythologized history takes an unflinching look at how James Webb, a North Carolina farm boy turned Washington insider, ran his end of the space race as NASA's administrator under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Presiding over the agency during its build-up to the Apollo moon mission, Webb grew the agency into a research and development behemoth by leaning heavily on the old boy network: he called in favors, brokered backroom deals, bullied those who weren't in lockstep with his vision and commandeered vast sums of federal budget money-all the while driven, Bizony contends, by "pure-hearted ideals." Bizony shows both the spectacular successes and failures leading up to the Apollo lunar landing and discusses success's cost in terms of dollars, human life and political ambition. The book closes with a chapter detailing the crippling blows dealt to NASA by the Nixon administration, a time period that saw the beginning of the space shuttle project. Hampered by budget restrictions, NASA engineers had to design a "dangerously imperfect piece of technology" that later resulted in two famous disasters. Bizony laments the militarizing of NASA under Reagan and the "wavering" public support for expanding the space program, but this firebrand of a book should rekindle interest.
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The prosaic side of space exploration--the politics of the aerospace industry--is insightfully illustrated in Bizony's biography of James Webb, who headed NASA from 1961 to 1968. Webb's imprint remains on the organization for good and ill, and Bizony's consciousness of Webb's legacy--a post-Apollo NASA unsure of its goals--enhances his retrospective on Webb's tenure. A lawyer who cut his political teeth as a New Dealer, Webb believed in large-scale government-industry coordination, and thought he was creating a model of "space age management" in his leadership of the crash program to land on the moon. His model collapsed with the 1967 space capsule fire that killed three Apollo astronauts; an investigation exposed deals cut by the manufacturer that snagged the contract. This pork-barrel underside to the history of Apollo is a crucial corrective to the traditional emphasis on astronauts and missions, and Bizony carries it off with investigative determination while retaining balance. Emerging from the bureaucratic thickets with an ultimately praiseworthy portrait of Webb, this should circulate with the space program set. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved