NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the agency’s most powerful telescope yet. The first of its kind, the telescope will travel 1 million miles from Earth to study the universe as it was 13.6 billion years ago.
A former NASA official named the telescope for James Webb, NASA’s second-ever administrator who oversaw the moon landing program that would grow the agency into a major scientific force. NASA says Webb “did more for science than perhaps any other government official.”
But to astronomers who have criticized the naming decision, Webb is also known for holding a high-level position in the State Department during the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, during which LGBTQ federal employees were identified and fired or forced to resign.
The name of such a revolutionary telescope should “be a reflection of our highest values,” a group of four astronomers wrote in Scientific American earlier this year.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire, co-authored the Scientific American piece. She told CNN that Webb’s name and legacy are “overshadowing what should be a story about an amazing feat of human engineering.”
NASA declined to rename the telescope after conducting an investigation into Webb’s career, the agency told CNN. But, just under one month before its grand launch, the telescope’s namesake is still a point of contention.
Webb worked at the State Department during the Lavender Scare
Before Webb was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to lead a then-fledgling NASA and oversee its Apollo moon program, he was undersecretary of state for part of President Harry Truman’s administration.
In 1950, a State Department official testified that the department had fired 91 gay employees because they were deemed to be “security risks,” actions precipitated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s baseless linking of homosexuality and communism, according to the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine.
Webb isn’t mentioned in most government records or sources that recount the Lavender Scare. But in the 2004 book “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” historian David K. Johnson wrote that Webb, then undersecretary, met with the president to discuss how the Hoey Committee — a Senate subcommittee created to determine whether gay government employees posed a security threat to the US government — and the White House “might ‘work together on the homosexual investigation.'”
Webb and two White House aides then met with Sen. Clyde Hoey, who led the committee, “to establish a ‘modus operandi,'” Johnson writes.
Archival documents, shared online by Columbia University astronomer Adrian Lucy, also showed Webb participated in a meeting with Hoey in which they discussed how the committee’s hearings would proceed.
Astronomers have urged NASA to change the name
The name for the telescope, an idea first conceived in 1989, was selected in 2002, according to the scientific journal Nature, by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe. Webb, who died 10 years earlier, was considered an unusual choice, since most telescopes at that time were named for scientists.
In March of this year, less than a year away from the long-awaited launch of the advanced telescope, four scientists in the astronomy and astrophysics fields wrote the Scientific American article calling on NASA to rename the telescope.
The group wrote that while “many astronomers feel a debt of gratitude for Webb’s work as NASA administrator,” his extended legacy “at best is complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.”
“Now that we know of Webb’s silence at State and his actions at NASA, we think it is time to rename JWST,” the quartet wrote in the March article.
The astronomers who wrote the Scientific American piece also launched a petition to rename the telescope that has since garnered more than 1,700 signatures from experts and students in the field.
In response, NASA said in July it would investigate claims of Webb’s participation in discriminatory practices. After that investigation concluded, though, NASA decided to keep Webb’s name.
“NASA’s History Office conducted an exhaustive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career,” the agency said in an October statement to CNN. “They also talked to experts who previously researched this topic extensively. NASA found no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
NASA hasn’t publicly shared the results of its investigation.
A Tubman telescope?
Prescod-Weinstein said that, in naming future NASA projects, the job shouldn’t be left to one person.
She suggested NASA create a “formal mechanism for naming projects that require major public investment” so the decision-making process is a more democratic one.
The University of New Hampshire assistant professor suggested another name for the first-of-its-kind telescope, one her coauthors supported: Harriet Tubman.
“There are people who have argued that Harriet Tubman wasn’t a ‘real scientist.’ But to do science is to apply rational knowledge of the physical world,” she told CNN in an email. “Harriet Tubman represents the best of humanity, and we should be sending the best of what we have to offer into the sky.”
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