Despite the controversy surrounding its honoree, NASA’s next flagship space observatory, which is set to launch in December after many years of delays, will keep its existing name, the James Webb Space Telescope. In 2002, the telescope dedicated after James Webb, the NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968 and during the Apollo era. However, evidence has emerged in the last six years linking Webb’s employment in the state department to the so-called Lavender Scare, a state-sponsored anti-LGBT purge in the 1950s and 1960s that pushed gay and bisexual academics and civil servants from US federal jobs due to their sexuality.
Thousands of astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists signed a petition demanding that Hubble’s successor be dubbed after someone involved in one of America’s most discriminatory political activities. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astrophysicist Dr. Sarah Tuttle, astronomer Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist Dr. Brian Nord initiated the petition, which reads.
“This new mission’s name should reflect its future legacy, as it symbolizes the rainbow of conceivable universes that our community imagines, dreams about, and works towards.” We are not only space scientists and fans, but we are also JWST’s future users. We make up the constituency that NASA claims to serve and inspire through its mission to “unveil the unknown for the benefit of all humanity.”
The letter goes on to say, “Queer persons were persecuted under Webb’s leadership. Those who excuse Webb’s lack of leadership cannot also give him credit for Apollo’s management.” The petition prompted NASA to launch an investigation into Webb’s policies and activities, which included the examination and study of archival materials. Following up with the agency, IFLScience informed us that the investigation is now complete and that there are no intentions to rename the telescope due to a lack of evidence justifying such a move.
In a statement obtained by IFLScience, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “At this moment, we have discovered no evidence that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” Dr. Paul Hertz, the chief of NASA’s astrophysics division, asked the agency in June to be upfront with the community and the public about the study and the final judgment. When IFLScience asked if the investigation’s findings would be made public, a NASA representative said there was nothing to discuss.
Karen Fox, NASA’s Senior Science Communications Officer, told IFLScience, “We honestly don’t have anything to announce because our inquiry hasn’t uncovered anything.” Previous documents extensively circulated online have exposed Webb’s role as Undersecretary of State in 1950 in promoting and supporting homophobic policy debates among US senators.
His position in government anti-LGBTQ policy is not the only thing that is questioned. Despite the fact that the so-called Mercury 13 outperformed the male astronauts during his stint as NASA administrator, women were purposefully banned from the astronaut program. In 1980, he also wrote an essay titled “Women Can’t Fight.” In that year, the US Naval Academy, where Webb was a professor at the time, graduated the first female officers. In recent years, NASA has been amenable to petitions to modify the names of insensitive space objects. In 2019, an asteroid originally known as “Ultima Thule” was renamed Arrakoth after it discovered that its previous name had Nazi undertones. It declared this year that it would no longer use pejorative or problematic labels for objects, replacing the Eskimo nebula and the Siamese twin galaxy with names that were less hurtful.