Hanging on by a Webb

NASA may still rename the controversial Webb Telescope. Here's how.

“To have it named after someone who waged war against LGBTQ Americans within NASA is unacceptable.”

NASA's opaque decision not to reconsider renaming the James Webb Space Telescope, after revelations that its namesake was involved in purges of gay and lesbian government officials in the 1950s, pushed New York State Senator Brad Hoylman to speak up.

In a September 30 tweet, the LGBTQ+ state Senator suggested President Joe Biden intervene.

“NASA is an independent agency that reports directly to the President. I hope Joe Biden does the right thing here and changes course,” Hoylman commented.

Hoylman tells Inverse that the name of the $9.7 billion Hubble successor isn’t just about the equipment or the mission. It’s about what it represents. (Webb was NASA administrator between 1961 and 1968. He died in 1992.)

“This is something that my children and school kids all across the country are learning about, as we speak,” Hoylman says. “To have it named after someone who waged war against LGBTQ Americans within NASA is unacceptable.”

But despite Hoylman’s statements and the tweets, petitions, and articles by concerned astronomers and astrophysicists, it’s not clear if there is enough momentum behind the push to change the Webb telescope’s name. It launches into space in December from a European Space Agency pad in French Guiana.

Following a flurry of tweets by NASA critics in late September, there’s been no sign of change at NASA or interest from the Biden Administration. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. At the same time, NASA offered the same prepared statement from current Administrator Bill Nelson, the space agency that has provided the media since September 30.

“We’ve found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The Webb Telescope. The silver sun shield, on which the yellow, optical telescope primary mirror rests, is the size of a tennis court.QAI Publishing/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Why scientists are upset — Over the past seven years, scientists and others in the space community have raised concerns about NASA’s naming the space telescope after Webb, culminating in a petition that has garnered more than 1,200 signatures since May.

Some of the most prominent figures behind that petition are:

“At best, Webb's record is complicated/not great. And at worst, we're basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it,” Prescod-Weinstein told National Public Radio.

The Lavender Scare — “Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s, thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality. Dubbed the Lavender Scare, this wave of repression was also bound up with anti-Communism and fueled by the power of congressional investigation.” —Judith Adkins for Prologue magazine, a publication by the National Archives.

The four scientists authored a March op-ed in Scientific American laying out their case against using Webb’s name for the telescope, noting his role in the Lavender Scare, a purge of gay and lesbian people from government positions in the middle of last century.

They cite scholarship showing Webb’s involvement in such purges while at the State Department before he came to NASA and his leadership role at NASA when gay employees were fired for their sexual identity.

The four scientists were also active on Twitter following NASA’s announcement it would not change the name of the Webb, criticizing the space agency not only for not changing the telescope’s name but for not being transparent about how it reached its decision.

How it was named — The Webb telescope was initially called the Next Generation Space Telescope in 2006. It was only given the Webb moniker in 2002 by then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who told NPR that there was no commission to select the telescope's name, but scientists he spoke to at the time seemed to like his choice.

But name by executive decision is hardly universal at NASA. For instance, it has organized public competitions to name many of its Mars rovers. The most recent rover, Perseverance, was called in 2020 by Alexander Mather, a seventh-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, who won an essay contest.

Critics of NASA’s choosing the former administrator Webb have also noted most of the agency’s space telescopes have been named for scientists rather than managers. For instance, the Hubble Space Telescope was named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, and Nancy Grace Roman, the namesake of the eponymous upcoming NASA space telescope, was an astronomer before entering management as NASA’s Chief of Astronomy in 1960.

What happens now?— Officially, for the time being, nothing happens. The telescope is still named the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA still plans to see it launched into space in December.

But Hoylman is clear that he doesn’t expect an instant response from the federal government — he notes the FDA still hasn’t lifted restrictions on blood donations by gay men — but is hopeful that Biden might yet take action.

“How that happens probably involves a commission and a wider discussion within the agency and with the other appropriate circles of astronomy and science,” he says. “This is the beginning of a longer campaign, I would imagine.”

How to watch the launch — Whether NASA changes course — abruptly, or years from now — the space telescope currently known as the James Webb is presently on a sea voyage through the Panama Canal to its launch site in French Guiana. If all goes well, a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket will carry the telescope to orbit on December 18.

NASA hasn’t officially announced the launch's live coverage, but typically streams launches online at www.nasa.gov/live.

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