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Webb telescope name change: Why astronomers are upset with NASA

Astronomers and scientists are angry NASA won't change the name of its flagship James Webb telescope after revelations of homophobia by its namesake.

Erik Simonsen/Photodisc/Getty Images

NASA will not rename the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency’s flagship observatory currently awaiting a December 18 launch from an ESA spaceport in French Guiana, despite a widespread outcry over the namesake’s role in a hunt for LGBTQA+ people within the U.S. government.

Over the past seven years, numerous astronomers, scientists, and others in the space community have criticized the telescopes christening after former NASA administrator James Webb, citing evidence of Webb’s role in purging gay and lesbian people from jobs in government as part of the Lavender Scare in the 1950s and 1960s.

NASA told scientists criticizing the use of Webb’s name — including scientists on the NASA Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee — that it was investigating the allegations and would respond. But critics say they first learned that NASA would not change the telescope’s name on Thursday when NASA responded to inquiries by NPR with a statement from current NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” Nelson told NPR.

Who is James Webb?

James Webb was NASA’s second administrator, leading the space agency from 1961 to 1968, a period including the Apollo moon program, and NASA profiles of Webb describing him as a skilled manager who balanced the political and scientific missions of the agency with aplomb.

Before joining NASA, Webb served as the Undersecretary of State from 1949 until 1952, where he worked to bolster U.S. Psychological warfare capability to counter the Soviets. He also participated in the Lavender scare, according to scholarship by University of South Florida LBGTQA+ historian David K. Johnson.

Webb is pictured on the right.Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

What is the Lavender Scare?

Johnson coined the term Lavender Scare in his 2004 book of the same name to describe the purge of hundreds of gay and lesbian people from U.S. Government posts in the 1950s, similar to the Red Scare and anti-Communist witch-hunting of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. Gay and lesbian people were seen as potential security risks and communist sympathizers, and Johnson reports Webb met with President Truman to discuss the “problem” of gay people in government.

During Webb’s time at NASA, an agency employee named Clifford Norton was arrested for gay activity and then interrogated by NASA security before being fired, an outcome critics say points to Webb’s continued involvement with Lavender Scare tactics at NASA after leaving the State Department.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a University of New Hampshire cosmologist who co-authored a Scientific American article calling for the renaming of the James Webb telescope in March, told NPR that Webb the administrator’s record is complicated at best, and “at worst, we’re basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it.”

What is the James Web Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope began life as the Next Generation Space Telescope in 1996, envisioned as a larger mirrored successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Decades of developments and delays have finally culminated in a space telescope with an advanced, 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror designed to look further out in space, and further back in time, than any scientific instrument ever before. The telescope is expected to search for the very first stars and galaxies formed in the universe after the big bang.

How is the space community responding?

Many of the critics in the space community who had called on NASA to rename the James Webb telescope are angry with the agency not only for refusing to change the name but for not explaining how they came to a decision or informing members of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, such as Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago.

Prescod-Weinstein has told NPR and tweeted that she feels gaslit by NASA.

What’s next?— It’s not clear if NASA will take any further action or explain its decision. It’s also unknown if the Biden administration will intervene, as New York State Senator Brad Hoylman called on the President to do on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, having been shipped through the Panama Canal to its launch site in French Guiana, is still waiting for its December 18 trip to the stars.

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