NASA again refuses to rename the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope will remain the James Webb Space Telescope, despite criticism from some astronomers who refuse to call it that.

They refuse to honor a NASA administrator who ran the agency at a time when the government was persecuting gay workers. But after a comprehensive review of historical records, NASA now says it “found no evidence that Webb was either a leader or advocate for the firing of government employees because of their sexual orientation.”

“Based on the available evidence, the agency has no plans to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” the agency said in a statement released on Friday, November 18.

Space telescopes have traditionally been named after scientists such as astronomer Edwin Hubble. But back when NASA was designing and building what is now its flagship telescope, an administrator unilaterally decided to name the powerful instrument after James Webb, an accomplished leader who oversaw the Apollo program that sent astronauts to the moon.

Last year, before the $10 billion telescope was launched, several astronomers wrote an article for Scientific American calls for the renaming of this observatory. They argued that Webb’s leadership at a time when the federal government was investigating and wiping out homosexual employees meant he must have been effectively complicit.

Many astronomy researchers have joined a petition urging NASA to change the name, and some specifically refer to the telescope by its initials only. The American Astronomical Society even reminded its members this month that they don’t have to use the telescope’s full name when submitting scientific papers to the Society’s journals.

In 2021, NASA began examining records of Webb’s reign, but the coronavirus pandemic meant access to some archival collections was restricted.

“A critically important part of this whole investigation was access to the records,” says Brian Odom, NASA’s chief historian. “COVID presented a major challenge for this.”

Still, after an initial review, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson released a statement last September saying the telescope’s name would remain unchanged. At the time, some astronomers were unhappy that NASA wasn’t more transparent about how officials came to this decision.

Now NASA has released the full report detailing their investigation into Webb’s tenure at both the State Department and NASA.

Odom and his colleagues reviewed over 50,000 pages of documents covering the period 1949-1969.

“I’m satisfied that we did our due diligence, that we went through the records that we had to go through,” he says.

This 1965 photo shows NASA chief James Webb (center) with Alabama Governor George Wallace (left) and rocket expert Wernher von Braun.
This 1965 photo shows NASA chief James Webb (center) with Alabama Governor George Wallace (left) and rocket expert Wernher von Braun.

That broad review revealed nothing about Webb’s own opinions on the federal government’s employment policies, Odom says, other than his intention to implement policies set by his superiors. For example, Webb was very concerned about NASA centers complying with the new gender equality practices.

“We still don’t really know what he thought on those issues,” Odom says, saying Webb’s primary concern seemed to be understanding government policies and implementing them while also fulfilling other priorities, such as… fly moon .

Homosexuality simply doesn’t appear in Webb’s communications about NASA personnel issues, Odom says. He found no evidence that Webb ever knew of Clifford J. Norton’s 1963 firing. Norton was a NASA budget analyst who lost his job after being arrested by police for making a “gay advance” and later sued the government.

The report also examines an episode during Webb’s time at the State Department in 1950, when he met with Senator Clyde Hoey, who was leading a congressional inquiry into homosexuals in the federal government.

“Based on available evidence, Webb’s primary involvement was to restrict Congressional access to State Department personnel files,” the new NASA report says, adding that Webb appears to have shared some materials about homosexuality that were owned by another were provided to federal employees.

“None of the evidence found links Webb to any actions arising out of this discussion. Webb is still following up on the matter, whether through memoranda or correspondence, after the June 28 meeting,” the NASA report said.

Critics of the telescope’s name say NASA’s approach to this whole problem is sorely lacking. The four astronomers who wrote it Scientific American Article sent NPR a joint statement stating, “NASA’s statement rests on a practice of selective historical reading: if there isn’t a piece of paper that specifically says ‘James Webb knew about this’, they assume that which means he didn’t know.”

These astronomers note that “all the evidence points to Webb remaining in positions of power because he was highly competent,” and say it’s likely Webb knew a lot about security practices at his agency during the Cold War, when being gay was perceived as a national security risk.

“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership – activities that were actually done by other people – but refuse to accept his blame for the problems.” “, you write.

They add that NASA’s stance could be seen as meaning that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination occurring under their authority.

Odom says he understands why people can have passionate feelings about the telescope’s name, calling the persecution of gay government employees a “painful chapter in American history.”

“I’m very familiar with how the past can still affect the present. And I understand why it means so much to people,” says Odom. “But ultimately, you know, we have to go where the evidence takes us.”

While there’s no evidence Webb led efforts to oust gay people from government, Odom says, it’s important to understand that part of the story and the damage they’ve done to people’s lives when the NASA is moving forward and trying to have open conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion, and accessibility.

“If we don’t make this a usable past,” Odom says, “we won’t learn the lessons it can teach us and we’ll be weaker as a result.”

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