Why NASA was urged to take James Webb’s name off the telescope

In 2002, Sean O’Keefe, then NASA Administrator, announced that the agency’s next telescope would be named after James Webb, who led NASA in the 1960s as it prepared to send humans to the moon land. He was a staunch advocate of space science.

Some astronomers were disappointed that it would not be named after an astronomer, while others objected on more serious grounds, namely that Mr. Webb bore some responsibility for an event during the Truman administration known as the Lavender Scare and the Purge of homosexuals led lesbian State Department employees. At that time, Mr. Webb had been the Under Secretary of State.

This topic gained prominence a year ago when four astronomers — Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Chicago, and Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington – published an op-ed in Scientific American entitled “The James Webb Space Telescope Needs a Rename”.

NASA said it will investigate the claims and release a report. Subsequently, last September, Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator and former Florida senator, announced that he saw no need to change the name. No report was ever published, which infuriated critics.

In March after the telescope’s launch, Nature magazine reported, based on FOIA requests, that NASA had taken the allegations so seriously that Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics at the time, wrote to outside astronomers and asked if he to change the name of the telescope. The answer was no, but he did not speak to any LGBTQ astronomers.

The magazine also reported on notes from the Clifford Norton case. He had been fired from NASA for being gay in 1963, during Mr. Webb’s tenure, and the archival materials alluded to “a custom in the agency” of firing people for homosexual activity. Mr Norton appealed and won a landmark case against such discrimination in 1969.

In November 2021, NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee asked the agency for a more comprehensive report.

Mr O’Keefe, the former Administrator, defended his election in an email.

“If it weren’t for James Webb’s determination to realize the boldest vision of his time, our research capacity would probably be very different today,” said Mr. O’Keefe.

But that wasn’t enough for the critics. “If he’s not responsible for the bad things that happened during his tenure, then why is he responsible for the good things?” said Dr. Prescod Weinstein. “It seems like there’s a bit of thought going on here, where people put him in charge of the things they like about his heritage and act like he’s only responsible for the things they like.”

“If our telescopes are going to be named after people, they should be named after people who inspire us to be our better selves,” added Dr. Add Prescod cream of tartar.

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