NASA is not changing the name of the James Webb telescope

James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, during the Cold War “Lavender Scare,” when government agencies often enforced policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal employees. For that reason, astronomers and others have long called for NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s suspected role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.

This afternoon, NASA released that long-awaited report by Brian Odom, the bureau’s chief historian. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made it clear that the agency will not be changing the telescope’s name, writing, “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not intend to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report shows that this period in federal policy — and in American history more broadly — was a dark chapter that is inconsistent with the agency’s current values.

Odom was tasked with finding out what evidence, if any, connects Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Tracking down evidence of controversial events dating back 60 years was a difficult subject to study, says Odom, but he was able to draw on a lot of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this research very seriously,” he says.

These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired in 1963 after being seen in a car with another man. According to his lawsuit, he was taken into police custody and NASA security then took him to agency headquarters and interrogated him throughout the night. He was later fired from his job.

Such treatment of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian was common at the time, following a 1953 executive order from President Dwight Eisenhower that listed “sexual perversion” as one of the types of conduct considered suspicious considered. Still, the NASA report states, “No evidence has been found to indicate that Webb was aware of Norton’s shot at the time. As it was accepted policy by the entire government, the dismissal was most likely – though unfortunately – not considered exceptional.

NASA’s report and announcement frustrate critics who have been for years make a plea to change the name of JWST. “Webb has a complicated legacy at best, including his participation in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists wrote in a statement. statement on Substack Today. They question the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb had no knowledge of, or surrendered to, layoffs within his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we must assume that he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the administrator from NASA should know if its chief of security is interrogating people out of court.”

Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this release – on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving – is not a coincidence, but a way to make the report less read. “The fact that they did it even though it’s LGBT VOTE Day says something about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.

NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He ran the agency as it promoted the space program to the moon landing and promoted astronomical research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.

While agency officials called for Webb’s name to be retained, Odom says, “We still need to use this history as an example of a past that was traumatic for many people. This past, whatever Webb’s role in it, is important to us going forward.”

That NASA chooses not to rename the telescope is “unsurprising, but disappointing,” said Ralf Danner, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. . Whether Webb was aware of Norton’s treatment, or whether there is evidence to support it, is not really relevant, Danner argues, since Webb stood for that policy as NASA administrator. “He’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”

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