NASA really, really won’t rename Webb telescope despite community pushback

The US$10-billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most complicated and expensive space observatory in history.Credit: Desiree Stover/NASA

For a second time, NASA has decided not to rename its flagship James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The decision follows a historical investigation into the telescope’s namesake, a former NASA administrator who held high-ranking government positions at a time when the United States systematically fired LGBT+ employees for their sexual orientation.

Many LGBT+ astronomers and other scientists have spoken out against having Webb’s name on the telescope, saying the association perpetuates a dark and hateful period in American history. Under pressure, NASA commissioned its chief historian to explore Webb’s history, particularly during his tenure at the Department of State from 1949 to 1952, when it was the epicentre of persecuting gay and lesbian employees. The agency issued its report on 18 November.

“The report found no evidence that Webb was either a leader or proponent of firing government employees for their sexual orientation,” the agency said in a statement it released alongside the report. Brian Odom, the agency historian, says he considers the investigation closed. “This history now can become useful to us to help us understand how we can be much, much better today,” he says.

In 2002 former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe named the telescope, then in planning, after Webb, to recognize Webb’s contributions to government service, including running NASA from 1961 to 1968 as it developed the Apollo programme to send astronauts to the Moon. O’Keefe did not consult the astronomical community on the decision. To many astronomers today, the fact that Webb held top positions in a government that fired people for their sexual orientation is enough to warrant removing his name from the telescope.

“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership — activities that were actually conducted by other people — but refuse to accept his culpability for the problems,” say the four astronomers who last year launched a petition to rename the telescope. “NASA’s top leadership is engaging in historical cherry picking, which is deeply unscientific in our view.” The four are Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire in Durham; Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington in Seattle; Lucianne Walkowicz of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois; and Brian Nord of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.

Barb Webb, who is James Webb’s daughter-in-law, says her family is not surprised by the findings but pleased that NASA issued a public report. “That said, James Webb did not deserve to have his legacy erroneously disparaged in such a rash and misguided manner,” she says.

An inspiring name?

The goal of the new report was to locate any evidence that could indicate whether Webb advocated for firing LGBT+ employees. But that shouldn’t be the bar for considering whether to rename the telescope, says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University in State College. Instead, he says, the agency should ask: “is this an inspiring name that reflects our values today?”

“I don’t need to see evidence that [Webb] personally oversaw the firing of LGBTQ+ people to know that he is not an individual who should represent the future of astronomical research,” says Rolf Danner, co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy.

The controversy over the telescope’s name took off in March 2021, when Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord published an opinion piece in Scientific American arguing for it to be renamed. NASA asked Odom to look for NASA records related to Webb and discriminatory practices. He found none, and in September 2021, NASA administrator Bill Nelson released a short statement saying the agency “had found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name”. Following outrage from many astronomers, NASA announced that Odom and a contract historian would look more extensively into Webb’s activities, including when he was at the state department.

The new report focuses on two meetings during June 1950. In the first, President Harry Truman and Webb discussed whether to cooperate with Congressional investigators who were seeking information about state department employees. Following that strategy meeting, Webb met with Senator Clyde Hoey (D-N.C.) and several Truman advisers and passed Hoey “some material on the subject” of homosexuality that had been prepared by one of Webb’s co-workers. “To date, no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions emerging from this discussion,” Odom’s report states. Other employees at the state department had responsibility for following up. “Because of this, it is a sound conjecture that Webb played little role in the matter.”

The report also describes the 1963 firing of Clifford Norton, a NASA employee, for being gay. Webb was NASA administrator at the time. Norton sued the federal government over his firing and won, in a landmark 1969 civil-rights case. Odom says he found no evidence that Webb knew about Norton’s firing, and notes that it was the Civil Service Commission, not agencies such as NASA, that were charged with investigating and enforcing the policy against LGBT+ employees.

“Advancing full equality for LGBTQI+ Americans is a core value and priority for NASA,” the agency said in its 18 November statement. “Building a more inclusive future requires we honestly and openly confront our history, including the times when the federal government has fallen short of supporting LGBTQI+ communities.”

A discontent community

NASA has struggled with the politics surrounding the decision, internal e-mails show. Pressure for the agency to be more transparent about its deliberations and decisions has come from the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), an advisory panel for NASA from which Walkowicz resigned after the agency first declined to change the telescope’s name. As recently as 7 November the committee told NASA that the delays in releasing information about the Webb investigation “is both exasperating and a source of dismay for the community”. Committee chair Charles Woodward, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told Nature that it took longer than expected, but that NASA’s report was responsive to community questions about Webb’s history. “They bring a resolution to something that’s been elusive,” he says.

Scientific societies have also brought pressure to bear. The Royal Astronomical Society has adopted a policy, at least temporarily, of exclusively using the JWST acronym in its publications, rather than the full name of the telescope. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has announced it will not require JWST to be spelled out on first reference in its journals, a departure from its usual policy about acronyms.

The Webb historical investigation will probably be discussed at upcoming meetings of groups such as the AAS and the APAC. This controversy might also have broader ramifications within NASA for how it will name objects in the future. In a letter to APAC seen by Nature, Nelson said the agency had “reviewed and updated internal directives governing naming of missions and buildings”.

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