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Why NASA Was Pushed to Take James Webb’s Name Off the Telescope


In 2002, Sean O’Keefe, then the NASA administrator, announced that the agency’s next telescope could be named for James Webb, who led NASA throughout the Nineteen Sixties, when it was gearing as much as land people on the moon. He was a staunch champion of space science.

Some astronomers were disillusioned that it will not be named for an astronomer, while others objected on more serious grounds, namely that Mr. Webb bore some responsibility for an event throughout the Truman administration referred to as the Lavender Scare that resulted within the purging of gay and lesbian employees from the State Department. On the time, Mr. Webb had been the under secretary of state.

That issue gained prominence a 12 months ago when 4 astronomers — Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of Recent 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, “The James Webb Space Telescope Must Be Renamed.”

NASA said it will investigate the claims and publish a report. Subsequently, last September, Bill Nelson, the present NASA administrator and a former Florida senator, announced that he saw no need to alter the name. No report was ever released, infuriating the critics.

In March after the telescope launched, Nature magazine reported on the idea of FOIA requests that NASA had taken the allegations seriously enough that Paul Hertz, then NASA’s director of astrophysics, had written outside astronomers asking if he should change the telescope’s name. The reply was no, but he didn’t consult with any L.G.B.T.Q. astronomers.

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

In November of 2021, NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee asked the agency for fuller report.

Mr. O’Keefe, the previous administrator, defended his alternative in an email.

“Arguably, were it not for James Webb’s determination to meet probably the most audacious vision of his time, our capability to explore today could be starkly different,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

But that was not enough for the critics. “If he’s not accountable for the bad stuff that happened while he was in charge, why is he accountable for the great things?” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said. “It seems there’s a little bit of double-think happening here, where people assign him responsibility for the things they like about his legacy and pretend that he’s only accountable for the things they like.”

“Our telescopes, if they’re going to be named after people, needs to be named after individuals who encourage us to be our higher selves,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein added.

After the primary images were revealed of the Webb telescope on Tuesday, a NASA spokeswoman said during a news conference that the agency’s historians are looking further into Mr. Webb’s history.

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