NASA will not change the name of the James Webb Telescope
James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and ’60s, during the Cold War era of the “lavender scare,” when government agencies often implemented policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal workers. For this reason, astronomers and others have long called on NASA to change the name of the The James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s questionable role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This afternoon, NASA made the long-awaited announcement report by the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom. In accompanying Media Release, NASA officials made it clear that the agency would not change the name of the telescope, writing: “Based on available evidence, the agency has no plans to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report illuminates that this period in federal politics—and American history more broadly—was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”
Odom was tasked with finding what evidence, if any, linked Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Searching for evidence of the disputed 60-year-old events became a difficult subject to study, Odom says, but he was able to draw on a wealth of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.
These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired in 1963 after being seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, the lawsuit states, and NASA security then took him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him all night. He was later fired from his job.
Such treatment of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian was common at the time, after President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order listed “sexual perversion” among the types of behavior considered suspect. However, the NASA report states: “No evidence has been found to indicate that Webb knew of Norton’s firing at the time. Since this was the accepted policy throughout the government, dismissal was, very likely, though unfortunately, considered unusual.”
The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate longtime critics making the case to change the name of JWST. “Webb has a complicated legacy at best, including his involvement in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists at statement about Substack today. They question the interpretation that the lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb was unaware of the layoffs or resigned within his own agency, writing, “In such a scenario, we must assume that he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the NASA administrator should know whether his security chief interrogates people extrajudicially.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this release – on the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday – is no coincidence, a way to make the report less readable. “The fact that they did this even though it’s LGBT STEM Day speaks volumes about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, such as Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He led the agency as it advanced the space program toward the moon landings and promoted astronomical research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.
Although agency officials called for Webb’s name to be withheld, Odom says, “We should still use this history as an example of a past that was traumatic for a lot of people. This past, whatever Webb’s role in it, is important to us going forward.”
That NASA decided not to rename the telescope “is not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralph Danner, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s committee on sexual orientation and gender minorities in astronomy. Whether Webb knew about Norton’s treatment or whether there was evidence of it is not really relevant, Danner argued, since Webb championed those policies as a NASA administrator. “He’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”
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