NASA Won’t Rename the James Webb Space Telescope—and Astronomers Are Angry

NASA decided not to rename the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), its soon-to be launched flagship observatory after examining whether James Webb, a former NASA administrator, was involved with persecuting gays and lesbians in the 1950s, 1960s. According to the agency, there was no evidence supporting these allegations.
Numerous astronomers were angered by the announcement and lack of transparency from NASA about the scope of their investigation.

Johanna Teske, an Astronomer at Carnegie Institution for Science Washington DC, said, "I'm disappointed." It is difficult for me to accept the decision to keep it current, as I don't know what factors were taken into consideration.

More than 1,200 people have signed a petition to have the JWST renamed since May. This includes scientists who were slated to use it after the December launch. Webb was a leader in multiple departments of the US government during a time when gay and lesbian federal employees were routinely fired. Webb was the NASA administrator when a 1963 employee of the agency was fired on suspicion that he was gay.

NASA initiated an internal investigation of historical documents to find out more about Webb's behavior towards gay and lesbian persons. Current agency administrator Bill Nelson issued a one-sentence statement on 27 September to some media outlets including Nature. He stated that there was no evidence that could have been used to change the name of James Webb Space Telescope.

Gut punch

In June, a NASA official stated that the agency would communicate its decision to the scientific community. However, there is not yet a final written report that can be released. Odom claims that the investigation was thorough and objective given the circumstances surrounding COVID. Odom says that the investigation involved several historians looking through NASA's records and interviewing historians who were familiar with Webb. Additionally, an external historian was hired to examine Webbs past careers at other government agencies. Many relevant repositories such as the National Archives, Washington DC, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, Independence, Missouri were closed for long periods due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Odoms team couldn't access materials that weren't already digitized.

Odom claims that he met Nelson multiple times to present the information that investigators were able gather. He says that the administrators were very thoughtful and objective in their participation. Nelson decided to keep the name of telescope.

Some people believe NASA's decision was wrong. They claim Webb was the head of the agency during discrimination and that he is responsible. Brian Nord, an astrophysicist from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia (Illinois), says the gut punch lies in refusing to hear the voices queer astronomers. This is a refusal of history to be confronted. How can we shed light on oppression people are experiencing if we don't have this?

Nord was one of the four astronomers that led the petition to rename the telescope. Lucianne Walkowicz, at the Adler Planetarium (Chicago), and Chanda Prescod–Weinstein, at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. Sarah Tuttle is at the University of Washington. They wrote to Nature in an email about NASA's decision: While institutions may talk about equity and diversity, they don't seem to be concerned about public accountability for sensitive issues that have affected a historically marginalized population.

Name a telescope

The controversy centers on the responsibility of government officials for discriminatory policies and actions at the agencies they lead. Webb was NASA's chief executive between 1961 and 1968 during the peak of exploration programs that led to astronauts walking on the Moon. Critics point out that Webb was in charge of NASA in 1963 when Clifford Norton (a suspected gay employee) was fired.

Odom claims he examined the Norton case closely to determine if Webb was involved with the firing. He says it didn't come up.

Critics say that Webb's legacy must be considered in a wider context. Webb was an American government official, holding the position of Undersecretary of State from 1949 to 1952 during Truman's administration. During this time, firing gay people was accepted and encouraged. Rolf Danner is an astronomer at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He chairs the American Astronomical Societys Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. Webb was likely an effective manager within that structure. Webb is still the best choice for NASA's most important science project 60 years later.

The JWST, which will be the successor to the Hubble Satellite Telescope, will study cosmic phenomena such as star formation, galaxy evolution, and exoplanets. The European and Canadian space agencies are international partners in this mission. Former NASA administrator Sean OKeefe named it in 2002 to honor Webb's achievements in government. OKeefe, now at Syracuse University, New York, said that Webb was able to bring together people from different disciplines and work together to achieve greater goals. Webb would have made NASA a different organization today, he says. The agency's investigation confirms that Webb is indeed a character.

Some argue that Webb's achievements are not sufficient to name the telescope after him due to the context in which Webb worked. Webb was a good man, no matter what the consequences, and will be remembered by history, according to Peter Gao, a Carnegie Institution planetary scientist. We don't need to celebrate Webb more, given the events that took place under his tenure.

Astronomers who aren't happy with NASA's decision are looking to the future. Many believe that boycotting JWST is impossible due to its transformative capabilities. Some are looking for ways to acknowledge the controversy and still work with JWST data. This could include putting information about Webbs association with anti-LGBT+ acts in the acknowledgments of papers. Other people might refer to the telescope as something else when they deal with it. Prescod Weinstein tweeted, 30 September: "I am personally thrilled about just wonderful space telescope (JWST)".

This article was published with permission on October 1, 2021.

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