NASA's next flagship space telescope, scheduled to launch in December after many years of delays, will retain its current name, the James Webb Space Telescope, despite the controversy surrounding its honoree.
The telescope was dedicated to James Webb, the space agency’s administrator from 1961 to 1968 and throughout the Apollo years, in 2002. However, over the last six years, evidence has come to light linking Webb’s work in the upper echelons of the state department with what is known as the Lavender Scare, the state-sponsored anti-LGBT purge that forced gay and bisexual scientists and civil servants from US federal jobs because of their sexuality in the 1950s and '60s.
Naming Hubble's successor after someone involved in one of American history's most discriminatory political actions proved controversial enough that thousands of astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists signed a petition calling for it to be renamed. The petition, started by cosmologist Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astrophysicist Dr Sarah Tuttle, astronomer Dr Lucianne Walkowicz, and astrophysicist Dr Brian Nord, reads:
"This new mission reflects the rainbow of possible universes that our community imagines, dreams about, and works for, and its name should reflect its future legacy. We are not only space science professionals and space enthusiasts, we are also future users of JWST. Together, we are part of the constituency that NASA purports to serve and inspire through its mission to “reveal the unknown for the benefit of all humankind.”
The letter adds: "[U]nder Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted. Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo."
The petition led NASA to start an investigation to examine and review archival documents related to Webb’s policies and actions. Following up on the investigation with the agency, IFLScience was told that the investigation is now concluded and that there are no plans to rename the telescope due to not enough evidence warranting a name change.
“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement seen by IFLScience.
Back in June, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division, Dr Paul Hertz, asked the agency to be transparent with the community and the public regarding the investigation and whichever decision was made in the end. When IFLScience asked if the results of the investigation will be published, a NASA spokesperson told us there was nothing to share.
“We truly don’t have anything to report because our investigation hasn’t found anything,” Karen Fox, Senior Science Communications Officer for NASA, told IFLScience.
Previous documents shared widely online have highlighted the role Webb himself had in facilitating and supporting homophobic policy discussions among US senators as Undersecretary of State in 1950.
It's not just his role in federal anti-LGBTQ policy that is widely seen as problematic. During his tenure as NASA administrator, women were deliberately excluded from the astronaut program despite the so-called Mercury 13 outperforming the male astronauts. He also penned an essay in 1980 titled "Women Can't Fight". That was the historic year the first female officers graduated from the US Naval Academy, where Webb was a professor at the time.
NASA has proven receptive in recent years to requests for name changes of space objects that have proven insensitive. A prime example is the renaming of an asteroid formerly known as "Ultima Thule" to Arrakoth in 2019 after learning its original name had Nazi connotations. Last year it announced it would stop using derogatory or problematic nicknames for objects, renaming both the Eskimo nebula and Siamese Twin galaxy to less offensive terms.