According to media reports, NASA will not rename the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope.
This moniker is in honor of NASA's second-ever administrator. He led the agency from 1961 until 1968, when it was trying to land humans on the moon. Webb's critics claim that Webb was complicit with discrimination against gay and bisexual NASA employees during his tenure. They point to incidents like the 1963 "immoral conduct", firing Clifford Norton.
A petition was created by some of these critics to urge NASA to change the name of the $10 billion telescope that is due to launch Dec. 18. The petition details Webb's case, which the petition creators claim goes back to his preNASA days.
Related: Building The James Webb Space Telescope (photos).
Webb was the Undersecretary to State in the purge of queer individuals from government service, known as the "Lavender Scare," before becoming NASA chief. The petition states that archive evidence clearly shows Webb was involved in high-level discussions regarding the creation and implementation of this policy. "As we've noted, Webb's legacy as a leader is complex at best and complicit with persecution at worst," the petition states.
Webb's inclusion on such a prominent mission sends a troubling message to NASA about its commitment to diversity and inclusion, according to petition creators.
The petition states that "We, future users of NASA's next generation space telescope, and those who will inherit it, demand that this telescope be named for its amazing discoveries, and a name that stands as a symbol of a future where we all are free."
The petition had more than 1,200 signatures as of Thursday night (Sept. 30,) and most of these were from professional astronomers, or students of astronomy.
NASA previously stated that it would investigate the request for renaming. NPR reported that NASA has completed this work and is sticking with its name.
NPR's Bill Nelson, current NASA chief, stated that "we have not found any evidence that warrants changing name of the James Webb Space Telescope."
Sarah Tuttle, University of Washington astrophysicist, was not happy with the news and the way it was presented. The other three petition creators are Lucianne Walkowicz of Adler Planetarium and JustSpace Alliance in Chicago, Chanda Prescod Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, and Brian Nord from Fermilab.
"NASA is relying upon cowardice and poor PR technique leak that they won't be renaming JWST after career administrator who oversaw homophobic persecution, development of psychological warfare, and ignoring the request of 1,200 astronomers for reconsideration," Tuttle tweeted on Thursday, towards the end of a series tweets about the announcement.
Tuttle also tweeted that "They have ignored both petitioners and advisory committees that requested an inquiry, and have given no details on their research or their final decision."
The James Webb Space Telescope was designed to see the cosmos in infrared lights. It features a primary mirror measuring 21.3 feet (6.5 metres) in diameter, nearly three times larger than Hubble's. The observatory will be launched from French Guiana on atop an Ariane 5 rocket in mid-December. It will then travel to Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2 (a spot that is gravitationally stable at 930,000 miles (1 million kilometers) away from its home planet).
Once it is there, the telescope can perform a wide range of scientific work. This includes studying the first stars and galaxies in the universe, as well as searching for signs of life on nearby planets.