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NASA won't rename its James Webb Space Telescope despite protests by LGBTQ+ voices

The instrument is named after the influential figure at NASA, who participated in the systematic discrimination of queer folks.

NASA won't rename its James Webb Space Telescope despite protests by LGBTQ+ voices
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trigger Warning: Mentions of Discrimination Against the LGBTQ+ Community

NASA has announced that it does not plan to change the name of its James Webb Space Telescope. Although Webb was an influential figure at the organization, he actively participated in the systematic discrimination of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Several queer voices have protested against the name, to no avail. Set to launch later this year in December, and worth $10 billion, the instrument has been under fire for its name for numerous years. Due to its upcoming launch, the name has now come under the public spotlight. So far, 1,200 people, mostly astronomers and passionate enthusiasts, have signed a petition calling for the name to be changed, the Smithsonian Magazine reports.



 

"At best, Webb's record is complicated," Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, said in an interview with 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." The scientist co-authored an opinion article on the subject for Scientific American, in which she argues her case to rename the telescope. In fact, she suggests naming the instrument the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope (HTST).



 

Webb's queerphobia came under public scrutiny about six years ago, Prescod-Weinstein notes in her article. This is also when professional and amateur astronomers began expressing criticism of the telescope's name. Webb, an administrator at NASA during the "Lavender Scare," was responsible for the systematic dismissal of NASA employees who were part of the LGBTQ+ community. (The Lavender Scare was an era barring queer folks from government jobs.) For instance, Clifford Norton, a former NASA employee, was fired under Webb's leadership for "immoral conduct" and allegedly possessing character traits that rendered him "unsuitable for further Government employment." Prior to his dismissal, he was questioned by NASA about his sexual activities and even arrested and interrogated by the police for "gay activity."



 

While there is no direct evidence connecting Webb to the incident, critics do not believe this exonerates him. Prescod-Weinstein explained, "Either he was a wildly incompetent administrator and did not know that his head of security was interrogating employees in NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on and he was, in some sense, party to overseeing the interrogation of someone for being gay." NASA, however, has relied on the lack of evidence to avoid condemning Webb's actions and renaming the telescope. NASA administrator Bill Nelson stated, "We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope."



 

Despite this, astronomers and passionate enthusiasts have launched a petition to urge NASA to change the name. "The time has come to choose a future that is inspiring to all of us," the petition reads. "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." (You can read and sign the full petition here.) The James Webb Space Telescope, which is now 14 years behind schedule, is set to launch on 18 December this year.



 

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