NASA announced that it was not planning to rename the James Webb Space Telescope — a project that cost $10 billion and was named after the former NASA administrator. Concerns have been voiced about the naming due to Webb’s involvement in government discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers around the 1950s-1960s during the Lavender Scare.
"We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," NASA administrator Bill Nelson told NPR.
NASA’s newest telescope, which should launch in December, is understood to be an updated Hubble. It’ll help scientists see light from the earliest galaxies as well as pick up atmospheric readings of planets orbiting stars in other solar systems.
While there’s excitement over what discoveries the telescope will help scientists reveal, some have still been troubled at the chosen name for the project.
A petition organized several months ago saw more than 1,200 astronomers and those interested in the subject sign their names against naming the telescope after Webb.
“Leaders are responsible not only for the actions of those they lead, but the climate they create within their spheres of influence. As we have noted previously, Webb’s legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution,” the petition stated.
Part of the petition accuses Webb of involvement in the interrogation of NASA employee Clifford Norton, who lost his job in 1963 while Webb led the agency. Washington, D.C. police arrested Norton after he was seen speaking with a man. NASA's security chief at the time became involved in the interrogation and then interrogated Norton again at the agency.
“The historical record is already clear: under Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted,” the petition said.
“At best, Webb's record is complicated,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire who has called on the telescope to be renamed, told NPR. “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.”
In response to the concerns voiced about naming the telescope after Webb, NASA launched an investigation. However, the agency has been tight-lipped on how it conducted it.
“We've done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” senior science communications officer Karen Fox wrote NPR in an email. “Those efforts have not uncovered evidence warranting a name change.”
The secrecy around the investigation is a problem to Prescod-Weinstein. “I have to tell you that I'm concerned that they have chosen not to be public about this,” she said.
“I'm basically a NASA fan girl,” Prescod-Weinstein, who has collaborated with NASA previously, explained. “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.”
While the administrator who decided on the name and others have said that the lack of evidence means renaming the telescope would be an injustice or that Webb was a product of his time, Prescod-Weinstein said that it’s affected her as a Black, queer person.
The naming reminds her, she told the outlet, of “the fight that I have had to have to be OK with myself as a queer person. And I don't think that that should be associated with the incredible thing that is the cosmos.”