The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch later this year, and NASA has no intention to rename the instrument despite complaints that it’s named after a man who presided over the firings of gay and lesbian government employees, NPR reports.
In just a few months, finger’s crossed, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will park itself in the second Earth-Sun Lagrange point, from where it will gaze upon the cosmos. Far from the noise and clutter of low Earth orbit, the $10 billion telescope will peer at ancient galaxies, dust disks around stars, and the atmospheres of distant exoplanets. Profoundly, JWST even has the potential to detect biosignatures consistent with alien life.
But for each mind-bending discovery this telescope is certain to make, we’ll have to cringe at its unfortunate name and link to the Lavender Scare—a despicable era in American history when gay and lesbian government employees were fired or forced to resign on account of their sexuality. James Webb, NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968, actively participated in the Lavender Scare, yet the most powerful space telescope ever built was named in his honor.
Upon being asked to change the name, NASA launched an investigation to learn about Webb’s role during the Lavender Scare. The now-concluded investigation apparently found nothing deemed serious enough to take action.
“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told NPR.
The space agency provided few details, aside from saying historians were consulted on the matter. Karen Fox, a senior science communications officer at NASA, echoed Nelson’s words when speaking to NPR, saying: “We’ve done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” but those efforts “have not uncovered evidence warranting a name change.”
James Webb (1906-1992) was a key figure during NASA’s Mercury and Gemini programs, which set the stage for the crewed Apollo missions to the Moon. His contributions to space exploration are not in question, but his actions as a public servant most certainly are.
The name for the telescope was chosen by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe. He actually broke with tradition, as telescopes are typically named after prominent scientists. Neither O’Keefe nor Webb come from scientific backgrounds. The decision to name the telescope happened in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2015 that criticisms of the name began to emerge. Dan Savage, a relationship and sex advice columnist and gay rights activist, kickstarted the conversation in his article, “Should NASA Name a Telescope After a Dead Guy Who Persecuted Gay People in the 1950s?”
“Webb didn’t just ascribe to the prevailing anti-gay prejudices; he enforced them and, again, destroyed careers and lives in the process,” wrote Savage, who was content to let the name stay. “We have so much to fight for right now, so much work to do, that going after a dead guy seems like a distraction we can’t afford. It’s also likely to be a battle we would lose. So I’m thinking we let this guy have his telescope,” he said.
The issue escalated earlier this year following the launch of a petition, which has since been signed by over 1,200 people. The petition asked that NASA rename the space telescope, given Webb’s actions while working for the U.S. State Department and NASA.
“Archival evidence clearly indicates that Webb was in high-level conversations regarding the creation of this [anti-gay] policy and resulting actions,” according to the petition, adding that it was “under Webb’s leadership” that “queer people were persecuted.”
An article published in Scientific American this past March forcefully argued for a name change, but to no avail. “The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material. There is no record of him choosing to stand up for the humanity of those being persecuted,” those authors wrote.
NASA, it would seem, would like to see this controversy fade away and not have to go through the hassle and expense of renaming a telescope that’s supposed to launch in December. Still, NASA should be more forthcoming about the investigation and do a better job of explaining its reasoning to the general public.
So the name will remain, and we’ll find ourselves repeating it ceaselessly over the coming years—but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.