The instrument is named after the influential figure at NASA, who participated in the systematic discrimination of queer folks.
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.
.@NASA will not rename the James Webb Space Telescope despite controversy over its name.— The Weather Channel India (@weatherindia) October 1, 2021
It was named after NASA ex-administrator James Webb, who went along with the govt's discrimination against gay & lesbian employees in 1950s.https://t.co/plP5FOglbj
📷: NASA/Desiree Stover pic.twitter.com/SkDzZGKnTc
"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).
Some scientists want NASA to rename its new $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope — saying Webb was complicit in the purge of queer people from government jobs in the '50s and '60s.— NPR (@NPR) October 2, 2021
NASA said no.https://t.co/ZzliUcupyr
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."
NASA is not planning to rename the James Webb Space Telescope over Webb's treatment of LGBTQ+ employees during the "Lavender Scare" of the 1950's and 1960's. https://t.co/jFcksVrgCe— The Advocate (@TheAdvocateMag) October 3, 2021
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.