NASA says they do not plan to rename the multi-billion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope, despite concerns from astronomers, the public and agency employees. James Webb, who was an influential administrator at NASA during the 1960s and 1970s, worked in the Truman administration as Undersecretary of State at a time when the department systematically discriminated against gay and lesbian employees. The controversy has many calling on NASA to rethink the name of the the $10 billion telescope, which is set to launch in December.
"At best, Webb's record is complicated," says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, to NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. Prescod-Weinstein, who co-authored an opinion article in Scientific American on the subject, says, “And at worst, we're basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it, in my opinion."
Controversy over the telescope’s name has circulated among professional and amateur astronomers for years, but its upcoming launch has thrust the issue into the public spotlight. In just a few months, the James Webb Space Telescope—which is about 14 years behind schedule—will find its home in the sun’s orbit, where it will spend years monitoring the cosmos. The telescope will search for light from ancient galaxies, distant exoplanets, and gasses that might indicate the presence of life on other celestial bodies, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.
The new space telescope will be NASA’s succession to the pioneering Hubble Space Telescope, but its scientific potential is being overshadowed by its connotations. James Webb was Undersecretary of State during the “Lavender Scare,” an era barring homosexual people from government jobs. More than 1,200 people—mostly astronomers and passionate enthusiasts—have already signed a petition urging NASA to rename the telescope.
According to the petition:
"[P]rior to serving as the NASA Administrator, Webb served as the Undersecretary of State during the purge of queer people from government service known as the “Lavender Scare.” Archival evidence clearly indicates that Webb was in high-level conversations regarding the creation of this policy and resulting actions."
The petition points to evidence like the firing of NASA employee Clifford Norton, which happened under Webb’s leadership. Norton was arrested for "gay activity," interrogated by the police, and questioned by NASA about his sexual activities. NASA fired Norton from his position for "immoral conduct" and for possessing personality traits that render him "unsuitable for further Government employment." Though there is no evidence that Webb knew about the incident at the time, Prescod-Weinstein says that doesn’t exonerate him.
"Either he was a wildly incompetent administrator and didn't know that his head of security was interrogating employees in NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on and he was, in some sense, party to overseeing the interrogation of someone for being gay,” says Prescod-Weinstein to NPR.
NASA isn’t a stranger to controversial naming choices. They once renamed an asteroid after learning that its original name had Nazi connotations, according to Futurism’s Dan Robitzski. In 2020, NASA vowed to stop using racist names for various objects in space and announced the agency's commitment to "examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion."
The agency has yet to condemn Webb’s actions. "We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," says NASA administrator Bill Nelson to NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. NASA told NPR that they have looked into Webb’s past actions, but have shared few specifics about the investigation.
Editor’s Note, October 6, 2021: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that, while at NASA, James Webb participated in high level conversations regarding policies that contributed to the Lavender Scare. He was involved in these discussions when he was Undersecretary of State. The story has been edited to correct that fact.