James Webb Space Telescope: No evidence linking namesake to layoffs of LGBTQ staff
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With the telescope nearly a year into space, the agency announced its chief historian investigations on behalf of the telescope. James Webb, NASA’s second administrator, worked at the US State Department during the lavender scare, a period in which LGBTQ federal employees were often fired or forced to quit, and the decision to name the telescope for him drew criticism from researchers.
There is no evidence that Webb was directly involved in those firings in the 1950s or in the 1963 firing of gay NASA employee Clifford Norton, according to Brian Odom, the NASA historian who completed the investigation.
NASA officials announced in 2002 that the telescope would be named after Webb, who oversaw the Apollo moon landing program in the 1960s and helped boost the fledgling agency’s reputation. This was considered an unusual choice at the time, since Webb was an administrator, not a scientist.
A few months before the telescope was to finally launch, several astronomers called on NASA to remove Webb’s name from the telescope, which has since been noted. a few never-before-seen pictures of the universe.
In the piece for 2021 Scientific Americana group of astronomers wrote that Webb’s legacy is “complicated at best and reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government at worst.”
Even the scientists working on the telescope expressed their displeasure with its name. Earlier this summer, Dr. Jane Rigby, project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, tweeted that “a transformative telescope should have a name that signifies discovery and inclusion.”
NASA officials declined to rename him, however, citing an investigation into Webb’s career. The results of that research have not been published until now, almost a year after the launch of the telescope.
In his report on his investigation into Webb, Odom acknowledged the pain caused by Lavender’s intimidation, but said “no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or tracking related to the firing of individuals because of their sexual orientation.”
The findings of that investigation, Odom wrote, were based on more than 50,000 pages of historical documents from various archives, including NASA headquarters, the Truman Presidential Library and the National Archives.
Odom researched two meetings that preceded Webb’s time at NASA: In 1950, then-Under Secretary Webb met with President Harry S. Truman and later two White House aides and Democratic Senator Clyde Hoey of North Carolina to discuss the Hoey Committee , to a Senate subcommittee set up to investigate how many LGBTQ people worked for the federal government and whether they were “security risks.”
During the meeting with Truman, Webb discussed with the president how the committee and the White House “could ‘work together to investigate homosexuals,'” according to historian David K. Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Homosexuals and lesbians in the federal government,” one of the many documents Odom states in his report.
No evidence links Webb to any action that followed those discussions, Odom said.
The historian also investigated the firing of Norton, a budget analyst at the space agency. Norton sued the Civil Service Commission after his firing, and his case, Norton v. Macy, was one of several that helped overturn an executive order that allowed federal agencies to fire LGBTQ employees because of their sexuality, Odom wrote.
Odom said he found no evidence to show Webb was aware of Norton’s firing; Because it was federal policy at the time to fire LGBTQ employees, Odom wrote, Norton’s departure was “very likely — though unfortunately — considered exceptional.”
No documents can prove Webb was directly connected to the firing of the LGBTQ officer, Odom said.
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