The Webb Telescope’s Latest Stumbling Block: Its Name
Many astronomers were disappointed when NASA’s up-and-coming space telescope, the successor to the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope, was named for James Webb, a former NASA administrator who led the agency through the glory years of the Apollo missions. Why not name it for an astronomer, the way other space missions — Hubble, Kepler — have been, instead of a bean counter? But they held their tongues.
After all, the new telescope, which is now scheduled to be launched from a spaceport in French Guiana on Dec. 18, was designed to be bigger and more powerful than the Hubble. Orbiting the sun a million miles from Earth, it will be capable of bringing into focus the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe and closely inspecting the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for signs of life or habitability.
Now a new objection to the Webb name has arisen, inflaming the astronomical community. In 2015, Dan Savage, a columnist for The Stranger, a Seattle newspaper, called attention to the fact that James Webb, before running NASA, had been the under secretary of state in the Truman administration during the Lavender Scare, a period when thousands of gay men and lesbians lost their government jobs as potential security risks. Was this the kind of person to name a groundbreaking telescope after?
That question gained prominence this spring when four astronomers — Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and of the University of Chicago, and Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington — published an op-ed in Scientific American under the title, “The James Webb Space Telescope Needs to Be Renamed.”
The historical record is sketchy as to how much Webb was involved in the Lavender Scare purge, which seems to have been mostly instigated by Congress. But the evidence does seem to show that he at least knew what was going on, even meeting with President Harry S. Truman to discuss it, according to the book “The Lavender Scare,” by David Johnson. Mr. Johnson found no evidence, however, that Mr. Webb was an instigator of the purge. “I don’t see him as having any sort of leadership role in the Lavender Scare,” he told the journal Nature.
In their op-ed, the four astronomers argued that even if Webb was not directly involved in the State Department purge and similar events at NASA, the fact that it happened on his watch has permanently besmirched his name — a name that, if all goes well with the telescope, will be making headlines for the next 20 years.
“Now that we know of Webb’s silence at State and his actions at NASA, we think it is time to rename JWST,” the authors wrote. “The name of such an important mission, which promises to live in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should be a reflection of our highest values.” A better name for the telescope, they suggested, might be the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope; according to legend, Tubman helped slaves escape by following the North Star.
Other scientists, including Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist at the Florida Institute of Technology, have argued in support of Webb, noting that he was a vocal supporter of Black people and women at NASA, promoted a vigorous science program, and had been inaccurately identified on Wikipedia as the source of a quote maligning the emotional stability of those “who engage in overt acts of perversion.”
Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator who named the telescope in 2002, said in an email that Webb was “a champion of education, technology, science, aeronautics and human exploration.”
“Arguably, were it not for James Webb’s determination to fulfill the most audacious vision of his time, our capacity to explore today would be starkly different,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “He introduced complex systems management — a discipline to harness the exceptional technical capability of NASA at that time.” Mr. O’Keefe added that he was unaware of any evidence that Webb was responsible for the Lavender Scare.
In May, NASA promised a full investigation by its acting chief historian, Brian Odom. On Sept. 27, the agency issued a statement from the current NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, saying, “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” Since then, no extensive report has been forthcoming.
This has infuriated many astronomers, and some 1,200 have signed a petition calling for the telescope to be renamed. “Under Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted,” the petition reads, in part. “Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo.”
On hearing Mr. Nelson’s announcement, Dr. Walkowicz abruptly resigned their post on the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee. “This flippant, pathetic response to the very reasonable questions raised by the astronomical community regarding JWST’s name sends a clear message of NASA’s position on the rights of queer astronomers,” they wrote in an online statement. “It also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time.”
In an email, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said she was frustrated at the lack of promised transparency. Moreover, she said, the claim of “no evidence” was too strong, as it suggested that Webb was not responsible for the homophobia — well-documented — that his team promulgated during his tenure at NASA.
“If he’s not responsible for the bad stuff that happened while he was in charge, why is he responsible for the good stuff?” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said. “It seems there’s a bit of double-think happening here, where people assign him responsibility for the things they like about his legacy and pretend that he’s only responsible for the things they like.”
“Our telescopes, if they are going to be named after people, should be named after people who inspire us to be our better selves, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein added. “Harriet Tubman is one such person, who for generations has been closely associated with connecting the stars to one our most treasured values: freedom.”
Astronomers are eager to use the new telescope, but its name may join the ranks of the unmentionables — a Lord Voldemort of the heavens. As Dr. Prescod-Weinstein tweeted on Sept. 30, “I am personally thrilled about the Just Wonderful Space Telescope (JWST).”