December 30 – OXFORD – A distinguished last name from Granville County is now rushing into space, destined to take its place a million miles from Earth and write a new page in the annals of space exploration.
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day with, not gifts from the Magi, but a payload of scientific equipment designed to reveal secrets sequestered in the far reaches of the universe.
It is also named after a son of Oxford. James E. Webb was one of five children of John Frederick Webb, who served for 28 years as superintendent of schools in Granville County and for whom JF Webb High School is named.
All three sons – James, Gorham, and John Frederick Jr. – attended UNC Chapel Hill and served in the military. The girls – Edith and Olive – attended North Carolina College for Women, now UNC Greensboro.
James Webb was born in the community of Tally Ho in the County of Granville and lived and attended school in Oxford. He had a distinguished career in the private sector and in government, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, including service in the United States Marines during World War II.
But he is best remembered as an administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Selected for the post in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Webb guided NASA through the Apollo program, resigning during the change of administration just months before Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind.” “on the surface of the Moon in 1969.
Webb had been reluctant to accept the appointment as director of NASA. When asked in a 1985 interview what had changed his mind, he described his meeting with President Kennedy and said, “Well how could you turn down the President of the United States when ‘he said, here’s the exploration, extending outward from Earth, involving great and international policy issues? “I want you to take care of this because these are the politics that interest me in my job as president.” “
Webb took the job.
Webb’s daughter Sally, who now lives in California, said she found what he had done with NASA incredible, pointing out that Webb’s college degree was in education. He had no scientific training, although “he did a lot of study on his own.” Additionally, she said he had to deal with big egos among the scientists and astronauts he worked with.
“He had to balance this stuff,” she said.
What stands out, she says, is her integrity and honesty. “He was very patriotic,” she said, and “he loved North Carolina.”
Kathy Webb, daughter of John Frederick Webb Jr., said, “I grew up hearing about Uncle Jim. He was like a role model.”
She remembers visiting her uncle after he retired and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. She asked him if he thought there was life on other planets. “He spoke and spoke and spoke and never answered the question.”
The James Webb Space Telescope uses infrared technology, which will allow it to see objects farther away and more clearly than the Hubble Space Telescope. It could help scientists observe the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang and determine how they evolved and how planets formed.
And that might provide an answer to that question Webb didn’t answer for his niece about the possibility of life in these distant systems.
Webb has received numerous honors for his career, perhaps none more significant than having a historic marker placed in front of CG Credle Elementary School on College Street in Oxford. It reads: “James E. Webb 1906 – 1992 led NASA, 1961-1968, during early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He is. Johnson, Kennedy Space Centers. Lived 1 blk. W.”
Sally Webb was there in March 2019 for the marker dedication. “I was touched.” she said. “He never knew about it.”
He died in 1992.
Now the name that first appeared in Tally Ho is on its way to deep space. As Mark Pace, history scholar at the Richard H. Thornton Library, said, “He came from a small place and did great things.