NASA is refusing to rename its James Webb Space Telescope despite claims its namesake was involved in an anti-LGBT+ government “purge”.
When it launches in December 2021, the $10 billion telescope will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built.
But the naming of the telescope, in honour of anti-LGBT+ former NASA administrator James Webb, has caused outrage.
Earlier this year, four astronomers launched a petition to rename the telescope because Webb, who was the administrator of NASA between 1961 and 1968, allegedly participated in a government anti-LGBT+ purge.
Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord of Fermilab and the University of Chicago, and Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington pointed out: “Prior to serving as the NASA administrator, Webb served as the undersecretary of state during the purge of queer people from government service known as the ‘Lavender Scare’.”
After detailing Webb’s involvement in “purging” queer people from the US government, they wrote: “We, the future users of NASA’s next-generation space telescope and those who will inherit its legacy, demand that this telescope be given a name worthy of its remarkable discoveries, a name that stands for a future in which we are all free.”
After 1,250 signatories called on the space agency to reflect on Webb’s history, NASA’s acting chief historian Brian Odom announced that it would investigate the evidence against him using archival documents.
But this week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson told NPR that there was “no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope”.
With its James Webb Space Telescope, NASA will be ‘sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it’
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, one of the astronomers who launched the petition to rename the James Webb Space Telescope, told NPR: “At best, Webb’s record is complicated.
“And at worst, we’re basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it, in my opinion.”
During the 1960s in the US, when Webb was NASA administrator, the idea that the federal government had been “infiltrated” by homosexuals, known as the “Lavender Scare“, resulted in the widespread dismissal of LGBT+ peoplefrom government service.
The astronomers alleged in their petition that Webb was responsible for the “purge” of queer people from NASA at the time.
The also wrote that Webb is specifically named in confidential memos regarding “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts,” indicating that he was working as “a facilitator of homophobic policy discussions with members of the Senate”.
Prescod-Weinstein, a queer astronomer who was in a NASA postdoctoral programme, criticised the NASA investigation into a name change, and said she wished the space agency would be more transparent about the evidence it had reviewed.
She said: “I’m basically a NASA fan girl. And so this is particularly hard for me, to feel like I’m being gaslit by the agency that I have spent my career looking up to, and that I have committed parts of my career to.”