NASA stands by the disputed name of its James Webb Space Telescope

Astronomers and other scientists rave about the first scientific images of NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, revealed this week, but a number also continue to raise concerns about the agency’s choice of the next-generation observatory’s namesake. NASA tells CNET it still holds the nickname.

James Webb served as NASA administrator, the agency’s top official, from 1961 to 1968, guiding the agency through golden times, including much of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. During his lifetime (Webb died in 1992), most people could have singled out the accidental deaths of three Apollo I astronauts during a ground test in Florida in 1967 as the most controversial chapter in his tenure. Webb.

But for several years now, some astronomers and others have pointed to the Lavender Scare, a time when a number of gay people were ousted from the US government, as reason enough to rename NASA’s flagship observatory.

“It’s unclear what his exact role was in this,” astronomer and writer Phil Plait, who was once part of the NASA team working on the Hubble Space Telescope, wrote in a Monday blog post on Webb and the telescope, “but clearly there was a culture of oppression at NASA, and he ran the shop, so it didn’t matter what was happening under his watch. He acquiesced in it.

I asked NASA press secretary Jackie McGuinness for a response, and on Tuesday she sent the following statement on behalf of the agency:

“NASA’s Office of History conducted an exhaustive search of currently accessible records on James Webb and his career. Our historians also spoke to experts who have already done extensive research on this subject. NASA has no found no evidence at this stage that justifies changing the name of the telescope.”

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A dark chapter

James Webb at NASA.

James Webb at NASA.


Webb was in charge of NASA when at least one agency employee was fired because his supervisors suspected he was gay, and Webb was also the second U.S. State Department official in 1950 when 91 workers were fired. fired for being gay or were suspected of being gay.

In May 2021, four astronomers circulated a petition that garnered more than 1,700 signatures from scientists and others asking for the telescope to be renamed. The quartet wrote a column in Scientific American at the time that also cited additional archival evidence that Webb passed Lavender Scare memos during discussions with U.S. senators.

“The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings in which he handed over homophobic material,” the column read. “There is no record of him choosing to defend humanity from those who are persecuted.”

Others are less convinced.

“Naming a flagship space observatory after Webb is a fitting acknowledgment of his contributions to NASA science, even though he was only an administrator,” astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi wrote on Medium in January 2021, detailing his exhaustive search for evidence of Webb’s alleged fanaticism.

“On the specific allegations against Webb, the evidence is clear,” Oluseyi concluded. “He was not the initiator of Lavender Scare and he was not responsible for investigating allegations of ‘homosexuality’ or deciding the fate of accused individuals.”

Historian David Johnson, who wrote the 2004 book The Lavender Scare, says there is a record of Webb attending a White House meeting on the gay ‘threat’, but the meeting was about how quell the hysteria that politicians were stirring up on the subject.

“I don’t see him having a leadership role in scaring lavender,” Johnson told Nature in July 2021.

An investigation, but no report

In September, NASA appeared to close the deal on renaming the telescope, when Administrator Bill Nelson sent a one-sentence statement to reporters: “We have found no evidence at this time to support changing the name. from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The agency has not released a report or shared details about the scope of its investigation, an unusual move for a government division with a long history of transparency.

American Astronomical Society President Paula Szkody sent a letter to Nelson in November demanding a public, official report on the investigation and calling for a more inclusive naming process. When the letter received no response, Szkody sent a second, stronger letter on March 16.

“Memorialization is important because it expresses a nation’s values,” Szkody said in the follow-up letter. “JWST’s current name, as chosen unilaterally and without community input, does not reflect NASA’s core value of inclusion.”

NASA’s internal deliberations would become public later in March, when Nature magazine acquired and published a lengthy chain of emails after a Freedom of Information Act request.

The emails show NASA decision-makers grappling with a few bits of evidence to suggest homophobic policies were in place during Webb’s tenure, but ultimately finding nothing directly linking him to specific decisions.

Acting NASA historian Brian Odom and an additional contract historian have since continued the investigation by visiting archives that were previously closed due to the COVID pandemic.

McGuinness told me on Tuesday that this additional research is now complete and does not appear to have prompted NASA to change its mind.

“They are now compiling their information in an update that the agency will share,” McGuinness said.

Until then, the focus remains on groundbreaking images of the universe from the Webb Telescope. For some people, however, the brilliant images are tarnished by the biases associated, if not with the telescope’s namesake, then at least with his time at the helm of NASA.

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