The documentary features at least 10 space experts advocating a name change. Updating the telescope’s name “would help convey the message that NASA in its current era does not tolerate the same kind of intolerance that prevailed in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” says Tessa Fisher, an astronomer at the Arizona State University the documentary filmmakers. “I think we can do better than to name a scientific tool that has the ability to answer questions that the whole world is interested in after a Cold Warrior,” says writer and space historian Audra Wolfe, author of the book. Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Battle for the Soul of Science.
For the past 20 years — with the exception of this mission — NASA has had open tenders for proposed names for spacecraft and rovers, as Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Rolf Danner points out in the film, saying that it “picked numbers that are significant and can show us where we want to go in the future.” While praising NASA’s name for its first Mars rover — after abolitionist Sojourner Truth — and its upcoming infrared telescope, named after astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, he calls the JWST a departure from that story.
Even before it became controversial, the naming of the telescope — tentatively called the Next Generation Space Telescope when work began — was unconventional, to say the least. NASA officials generally name space telescopes near their launch and usually after prominent astronomers, as they did with the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. In contrast, former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe announced the new instrument would be named after Webb, a bureaucrat who ran the agency during the Apollo program – and he did so 20 years before the telescope’s launch, without consulting the astronomical community.
Now, disputes over Webb’s legacy have cast a shadow over his $10 billion namesake, particularly among LGBTQ astronomers and space fans. “If you’re a cis and straight person in astronomy, it might not seem so personal to you,” says Walkowicz. “For me, this essentially ruined the delivery of those first images that I want to look forward to.”
Walkowicz and three of her colleagues urged NASA to change the name in a 2021 petition signed by more than 1,800 astronomers, many of whom hoped to use the telescope’s instruments for research. The quartet also performed in a Scientific American opinion piece last year. The lead author of this article, Harvard astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, had been voicing concerns on social media about homophobic politics for years during Webb’s tenure at NASA. She and others also pointed out that Ultima Thule, NASA’s original name chosen for a Kuiper Belt object in 2018, had Nazi connotations. The agency renamed it Arrokoth the following year.
But despite the outcry, NASA officials chose not to rename the telescope. In July 2021, the authority launched an internal investigation, which also included the documents obtained later Nature via a FOIA request. In September of that year, current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson handed six reporters a one-sentence statement: “We have not found any evidence at this time to warrant changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” (In response, Walkowicz resigned NASA Astrophysics Advisory Board.) At the time, the agency did not grant interviews or release additional information.