In 2002, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that James Webb, who had led NASA in the 1960s as it prepared to land people on the moon, would name the agency’s next telescope. He was an ardent champion of space science.
Some astronomers were disappointed that it was not named after an astronomer, while others objected for more serious reasons, such as Mr. Webb took some responsibility, which resulted in the removal of gays. Lesbian staff from the State Department. At the time, Mr. Webb was Under Secretary of State.
The issue came to prominence a year ago when four astronomers, Lucian Walkovich of the JustSpace Alliance and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Chanda Prescott-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Sarah Tuttle of the University of Chicago. An op-ed published in Scientific American — by the University of Washington —The James Webb Space Telescope should be renamed.”
NASA said it would investigate the claims and issue a report. Then, last September, current NASA administrator and former Florida senator Bill Nelson announced that there was no need to change the name. No statement has been made to anger critics.
In March, when the telescope was launched, Nature reported based on FOIA requests NASA took the allegations seriously, as Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics at the time, wrote to astronomers asking them to change the telescope’s name. The answer is no, but he hasn’t talked to any LGBTQ astronomers.
The paper also reported the records of Clifford Norton’s case. He was fired from NASA in 1963 – Mr. During Webb’s tenure – for being gay, and archival materials refer to firing people for being gay as “a practice at the agency.” Mr. Norton appealed and won a landmark case against such discrimination in 1969.
In November 2021, NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Board asked the agency for a full report.
Former administrator Mr. O’Keefe defended his choice in an email.
“If James Webb had not been determined to carry out the most daring vision of his time, our ability to explore today would be very different,” said Mr. O’Keefe said.
But that’s not enough for critics. “If he’s not responsible for the bad things that happened while he was in charge, why is he responsible for the good things?” Dr. Prescott-Weinstein said. “There seems to be a doublethink going on here, where people are giving him responsibility for the things they like about his heritage and pretending he’s solely responsible for the things they like.”
“Our telescopes, if they’re going to be named after people, should be named after people who inspire us to be our best,” added Dr. Prescott-Weinstein.