Tangled Webb: Some would-be telescope users urge NASA to change device name


A composite image shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its namesake, former NASA Administrator James Webb. Credit: US Department of Veterans Affairs

As the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) quietly peers into infrared radiation in space to reveal more layers of cosmic history, controversy over its namesake simmers millions of miles from our home on Earth, where a move is in progress to change the name of the telescope.

James E. Webb led NASA as its second administrator from 1961 to 1968, in the midst of the Apollo program, which aimed to land humans on the moon. Earlier in Webb’s career in public service, he served as Under Secretary of State from 1949 to 1952 for President Harry Truman.

Webb’s tenure at the State Department spanned a decades-long period when government officials fired or forced the resignation of thousands of federal employees in an era later dubbed the “lavender scare” by the US. writer David K. Johnson in a 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

Webb’s association with the mass layoff of so many employees because of their sexual orientation prompted a movement to rename the telescope, which was originally called NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope.

The JWST is the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA led the development of the telescope, and it was a former NASA administrator who got Webb as the telescope’s namesake.

In an American scientific opinion piece starting in March 2021, four astronomers – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Tuttle from the University of Washington, Lucianne Walkowicz from JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium, and Brian Nord from Fermilab and the University of Chicago – expressed dismay that NASA named this new telescope for a man “whose legacy is at best complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination within the federal government.”

They wrote: “The name of such an important mission, which promises to live on in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should reflect our highest values. James Webb’s legacy is the antithesis of the dream and sense of freedom inspired by the exploration of deep time and deep space.

Because they had been “unmasked,” many of those who had lost their jobs during the Lavender Scare were not hired to work again in their chosen career; some were so devastated that they committed suicide.

Even though Webb did not fire these workers himself, Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord wrote that he nevertheless bears responsibility for the destructive policies enacted under his leadership and is therefore unworthy of the honor of the telescope.

This purge of gay men and women from government jobs coincided with the anti-Communist “witch hunt” known as Red Scare, launched by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. The Red Scare stoked national paranoia of communism that McCarthy extended to fears about sexuality, portraying this group as threats to national security who might be vulnerable to blackmail by foreign agents.

Congressional investigators and government reports also used derisive and demeaning language and in 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450which effectively streamlined shooting.

Launch of Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord an online petition demanding that NASA change the name of the telescope. Currently, more than 1,700 people from all over the world have signed the petition, mostly astronomy students, university professors, engineers, researchers and “astronomy enthusiasts”. At least two dozen signatories have NASA-related jobs and 143 had applied for research time on the telescope at the time of their signing.

Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord – who describe themselves as “future users of NASA’s next-generation space telescope” – have proposed another winner for the JWST: Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and railroad conductor stowaway who used the North Star and other celestial objects. coordinates to sail herself and other slaves to freedom under cover of darkness.

The Harriet Tubman Space Telescope, they wrote, would serve as a reminder that the night sky — which gave Tubman and others hope — belongs to everyone. “We should name telescopes out of love for those who came before us and paved the way to freedom,” they wrote, “and out of love for those who come after.”

Last September, NASA reported to National Public Radio that it had opened an investigation into James Webb, but ultimately concluded that his name would remain on the telescope.

“We have not found any evidence at this time to justify changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told NPR. Shortly after, Walkowicz resigned in protest of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, vowing not to use the telescope’s current name; many proponents of the name change have followed suit and call it only JWST.

Related: Allison Strom, Northwest Astrophysics Professor tracks galactic DNA using spectrographs from the James Webb Space Telescope.


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