Monday, 8 August 2016

How a Checker Cab Helped Get Apollo to the Moon

James Webb arrives in his official Checker Marathon at the White House, January 17, 1963. Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Adapted from an article I wrote for the Winter 2015 issue of The Checkerboard News, publication of the Checker Car Club of America, Inc.

For many years, I have been a proud owner and driver of a 1981 Checker Marathon. Checkers were made until 1982 by the Checker Motor Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, mainly for use as taxi cabs. Among the car's other claims to fame, Robert De Niro drove a Checker in Taxi Driver, the 1976 Martin Scorsese film, and the car was one of the stars of Taxi, the television series that aired from 1978 to 1983.

From time to time, I wondered if Checker cars played a role in America's space program. About 20 years ago, I found out that at least one Checker that can legitimately be said to have helped the Apollo astronauts get to the Moon.

The story concerns James E. Webb, the Administrator of NASA who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and who is given much of the credit for Apollo’s success. During the time he ran NASA from 1961 to 1968, Webb had to manage the agency and the massive nationwide effort behind Apollo. He also had to make sure that the U.S. Congress supplied the funds for the expensive effort to get to the Moon.

In his 1995 book, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA, historian Henry Lambright told how Webb worked with Congress. In asking for the massive sums needed for Apollo, Webb knew that he “could help make his case that every penny was needed if he did not appear to be living luxuriously as administrator.”

Although Webb was entitled to a government limousine, the canny native of North Carolina instead used a black Checker, Lambright explained. “It’s the little things that can get you into trouble in Washington,” said Webb, who had previously served as President Harry S. Truman’s budget director.

Lambright explained that the Checker helped Webb appear “the frugal country boy” when seeking funds from Congress.

Webb received many honors during his life for his work at NASA, and the agency named its next major space telescope after him. The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is due for launch in 2018.

While I have been unable to find a photograph of Webb with his Checker, I am happy to recommend Lambright’s book, which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb in 1966. NASA photo via Wikipedia.

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