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The pressure mounts on NASA to rename its James Webb Telescope

It turns out, hiring practices in the 1950s and 1960s weren't very equitable.

The pressure mounts on NASA to rename its James Webb Telescope
An artist's depiction of Webb (the telescope). NASA GSFC / CIL / Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

It's rare for moral controversy to surround developments in space-based astronomy, but that may be about to change forever.

New information about the namesake of the James Webb Space Telescope has linked James E. Webb, the former chief at NASA from 1961 to 1968, to unsavory practices — including the treatment of LGBTQ+ people within and around the space agency's purview, according to a 400-page collection of emails recently published in the journal Nature.

"Reading through the exchanges, it seems that LGBTQ+ scientists and the concern we raised are not really what they care about," said Rutgers University's Yao-Yuan Mao, who runs the online Astronomy and Astrophysics Outlist for researchers who are openly LGBTQ+.

Obviously, no one can go back in time and enforce present-day social and moral norms. Unless we build a time machine. Short of that, the idea of the James Webb Telescope living on into posterity in the minds and lives of future astronomers, astronauts, and other scientists — under a name that to many represents values that conflict with NASA's (loosely, a humanistic exploration of the universe via technology) — is becoming intolerable to many.

Astronomers argue for NASA to change James Webb Telescope's name

It was during a meeting on March 30 of NASA's Astrophysics Advisory Committee that officials declared an ongoing investigation of Webb-the-man's possible accountability for the treatment of LGBTQ+ people — with a final report to be released in the coming months.

"I'm looking for additional evidence that may conflict with the understanding we currently have of Webb's role in this," said Brian Odom, NASA's acting chief of history, according to the Scientific American report. During the meeting, NASA's Director of Astrophysics offered a concession, saying: the "decision NASA made is painful to some, and it seems wrong to many of us."

Some astronomers believe that NASA should change Webb's name to make up for past slights against the LGBTQ+ community in the last century. To some, renaming the spacecraft would be "a simple but very impactful thing that NASA can do, both for astronomers and the wider public," said Astronomer Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Institution for Science, based in Washington, D.C.

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"Why would they not take the opportunity to do that and fulfill one of their core values?" added Teske. Notably, the James Webb Telescope was initially called the Next Generation Space Telescope, but was later renamed in 2002, under former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

Shifting norms allow us to clear the air on NASA's past

At the time of its renaming, little was commonly known about Webb's role as an agent of the "Lavender Scare" — which was a McCarthy-like atmosphere of fear and hatemongering for people who didn't fit the norms of the time. And the mid-20th century was not a friendly time for the LGBTQ+ community, among many others.

Many who were declared gay or lesbian under federal employment were viewed as national security risks — placed under surveillance, harassed, and ultimately fired. One suspected gay employee, named Clifford Norton, was placed under interrogation for hours about his sexual preferences by NASA's security chief. And Norton was eventually terminated for "immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct," according to the report.

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It might be tempting to think that the name of the James Webb Space Telescope doesn't really matter — that the science is the same science whatever you call it. For the empirical facts of the universe themselves, this is probably true. The universe won't radically shift depending on the levels of equity in the history of a space agency on a tiny, pale blue dot. But the way we come to know that knowledge in society, through media, its shifting moral norms, and the wider desire for a sense of progress in history, could leave many people feeling alienated. Each discovery from the space telescope could serve only to remind many of times when, no matter the content of your character, your life and livelihood were constantly at risk from prejudice, merely for believing that you deserved to dream big.

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