NASA’s Webb Images Wow, but Telescope’s Name Remains Contentious

Everyone — from astronomers and experts to astro-nerds and Queen guitarists — has been raving around the initially science visuals from NASA’s James Webb Area Telescope revealed this 7 days, and rightly so. They are rather magnificent. But the astronomy neighborhood has ongoing to voice issues about the agency’s preference of namesake for the subsequent-technology observatory. 

NASA tells CNET it is standing by the moniker.

James Webb was NASA administrator, the agency’s greatest-ranking official, from 1961 until eventually 1968, shepherding the agency as a result of a golden era, like substantially of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo systems. Through his life time (Webb died in 1992), most persons might’ve pointed to the accidental deaths of three Apollo I astronauts during a 1967 floor test in Florida as the most controversial chapter of Webb’s tenure.

But for various many years now, some astronomers and some others have pointed to the Lavender Scare, a time period when a quantity of homosexual folks were being ousted from the US govt, as cause adequate to rename NASA’s flagship observatory.

“It truly is not apparent what his precise role was in this,” astronomer and author Phil Plait, who was at the time portion of NASA’s staff doing the job on the Hubble Room Telescope, wrote in a Monday web site post about Webb and the telescope, “but it truly is very clear there was a culture of oppression in NASA, and he ran the shop, so no subject what it transpired underneath his purview. He acquiesced to it.”

I requested NASA Press Secretary Jackie McGuinness for a response, and on Tuesday she sent the pursuing assertion on behalf of the company:

“NASA’s Heritage Business office conducted an exhaustive lookup via at this time available archives on James Webb and his profession. Our historians also talked to professionals who beforehand researched this subject matter extensively. NASA observed no evidence at this issue that warrants altering the title of the telescope.”

A dark chapter

James Webb at NASA.

James Webb at NASA.


Webb was in cost of NASA when at the very least one particular agency worker was fired since his supervisors suspected he was homosexual, and Webb was also second in cost of the US State Department in 1950 when 91 employees had been fired for staying homosexual or ended up under suspicion of remaining homosexual. 

In May perhaps 2021, 4 astronomers circulated a petition that gathered much more than 1,700 signatures from scientists and others contacting for the telescope to be renamed. The quartet penned a column in Scientific American at the time that also cited extra archival evidence that Webb experienced passed along Lavender Scare memos in discussions with US senators.

“The data obviously display that Webb planned and participated in conferences throughout which he handed in excess of homophobic material,” the column reads. “There is no report of him deciding on to stand up for the humanity of all those getting persecuted.”

Others are significantly less persuaded. 

“Naming a flagship house observatory right after Webb is a fitting recognition of his contributions to NASA science, even if he was just an administrator,” astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi wrote on Medium in January 2021, detailing his exhaustive research for evidence of Webb’s alleged bigotry. 

“On the unique allegations towards Webb the evidence is clear,” Oluseyi concluded. “He was not the initiator of the Lavender Scare and he was not in demand of investigating allegations of ‘homosexuality’ or selecting the destiny of accused people today.”

Historian David Johnson, who wrote the 2004 e book The Lavender Scare, states you will find document of Webb attending a White House conference on the homosexual “risk” but that the meeting was about how to tamp down the hysteria politicians had been kicking up about the topic.

“I really don’t see him as obtaining any form of leadership position in the Lavender Scare,” Johnson informed Mother nature in July 2021.   

An investigation, but no report

In September, NASA appeared to close the situation on renaming the telescope, when administrator Invoice Nelson despatched a a person-sentence statement to reporters: “We have discovered no proof at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Area Telescope.”

The company didn’t problem a report or share information about the scope of its investigation, an uncharacteristic go for a governing administration division with a extensive historical past of transparency. 

American Astronomical Culture President Paula Szkody despatched a letter to Nelson in November requesting a community and official report on the investigation and contacting for a more inclusive naming procedure. When the letter did not receive a reaction, Szkody despatched a next, much better letter on March 16.

“Memorialization is significant due to the fact it expresses a nation’s values,” Szkody stated in the adhere to-up letter. “The recent identify of JWST, as selected unilaterally and without group input, does not replicate NASA’s main price of inclusion.”

NASA’s inside deliberations would turn out to be general public later on in March, when Mother nature magazine obtained and published a extensive chain of e-mails after a Flexibility of Information Act request. 

The e-mails demonstrate NASA conclusion-makers wrestling with a several pieces of proof suggesting homophobic policies ended up in place through Webb’s tenure, but eventually finding very little specifically tying him to any certain conclusions. 

Performing NASA historian Brian Odom and an added deal historian have given that continued the investigation by visiting archives that were beforehand closed simply because of the COVID pandemic. 

McGuinness advised me Tuesday that this added research is now comprehensive and that it isn’t going to look to have prompted NASA to modify its brain.

“They are compiling their information and facts now into an update the company will share,” McGuinness said.

Until then, the focus continues to be on the Webb Telescope’s groundbreaking visuals of the universe. For some people today, nevertheless, the amazing shots are tarnished by the prejudice linked with, if not the telescope’s namesake, then at least the era through which he led NASA. 

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