For a second time, NASA has determined to not rename its flagship James Webb House Telescope (JWST). The choice follows a historic investigation into the telescope’s namesake, a former NASA administrator who held high-ranking authorities positions at a time when the USA systematically fired LGBT+ workers for his or her sexual orientation.
Many LGBT+ astronomers and different scientists have spoken out towards having Webb’s identify on the telescope, saying the affiliation perpetuates a darkish and hateful interval in American historical past. Beneath stress, NASA commissioned its chief historian to discover Webb’s historical past, significantly throughout his tenure on the Division of State from 1949 to 1952, when it was the epicentre of persecuting homosexual and lesbian workers. The company issued its report on 18 November.
“The report discovered no proof that Webb was both a pacesetter or proponent of firing authorities workers for his or her sexual orientation,” the company stated in an announcement it launched alongside the report. Brian Odom, the company historian, says he considers the investigation closed. “This historical past now can turn into helpful to us to assist us perceive how we will be a lot, a lot better at the moment,” he says.
In 2002 former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe named the telescope, then in planning, after Webb, to acknowledge Webb’s contributions to authorities service, together with operating NASA from 1961 to 1968 because it developed the Apollo programme to ship astronauts to the Moon. O’Keefe didn’t seek the advice of the astronomical group on the choice. To many astronomers at the moment, the truth that Webb held high positions in a authorities that fired individuals for his or her sexual orientation is sufficient to warrant eradicating his identify from the telescope.
“It’s hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit score for the thrilling issues that occurred underneath his management — actions that had been really carried out by different individuals — however refuse to just accept his culpability for the issues,” say the 4 astronomers who final yr launched a petition to rename the telescope. “NASA’s high management is partaking in historic cherry choosing, which is deeply unscientific in our view.” The 4 are Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the College of New Hampshire in Durham; Sarah Tuttle of the College of Washington in Seattle; Lucianne Walkowicz of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois; and Brian Nord of the Fermi Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.
Barb Webb, who’s James Webb’s daughter-in-law, says her household shouldn’t be stunned by the findings however happy that NASA issued a public report. “That stated, James Webb didn’t should have his legacy erroneously disparaged in such a rash and misguided method,” she says.
An inspiring identify?
The aim of the brand new report was to find any proof that would point out whether or not Webb advocated for firing LGBT+ workers. However that shouldn’t be the bar for contemplating whether or not to rename the telescope, says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State College in State School. As a substitute, he says, the company ought to ask: “is that this an inspiring identify that displays our values at the moment?”
“I don’t have to see proof that [Webb] personally oversaw the firing of LGBTQ+ individuals to know that he’s not a person who ought to characterize the way forward for astronomical analysis,” says Rolf Danner, co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. “I’m personally dissatisfied that NASA won’t rename JWST,” says McKinley Brumback, the committee’s different co-chair.
The controversy over the telescope’s identify took off in March 2021, when Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord revealed an opinion piece in Scientific American arguing for it to be renamed. NASA requested Odom to search for NASA information associated to Webb and discriminatory practices. He discovered none, and in September 2021, NASA administrator Invoice Nelson launched a brief assertion saying the company “had discovered no proof at the moment that warrants altering the identify”. Following outrage from many astronomers, NASA introduced that Odom and a contract historian would look extra extensively into Webb’s actions, together with when he was on the state division.
The brand new report focuses on two conferences throughout June 1950. Within the first, President Harry Truman and Webb mentioned whether or not to cooperate with Congressional investigators who had been searching for details about state division workers. Following that technique assembly, Webb met with Senator Clyde Hoey (D-N.C.) and a number of other Truman advisers and handed Hoey “some materials on the topic” of homosexuality that had been ready by one among Webb’s co-workers. “To this point, no obtainable proof immediately hyperlinks Webb to any actions rising from this dialogue,” Odom’s report states. Different workers on the state division had accountability for following up. “Due to this, it’s a sound conjecture that Webb performed little position within the matter.”
The report additionally describes the 1963 firing of Clifford Norton, a NASA worker, for being homosexual. Webb was NASA administrator on the time. Norton sued the federal authorities over his firing and gained, in a landmark 1969 civil-rights case. Odom says he discovered no proof that Webb knew about Norton’s firing, and notes that it was the Civil Service Fee, not companies reminiscent of NASA, that had been charged with investigating and implementing the coverage towards LGBT+ workers.
“Advancing full equality for LGBTQI+ People is a core worth and precedence for NASA,” the company stated in its 18 November assertion. “Constructing a extra inclusive future requires we truthfully and overtly confront our historical past, together with the occasions when the federal authorities has fallen in need of supporting LGBTQI+ communities.”
A discontent group
NASA has struggled with the politics surrounding the choice, inner e-mails present. Strain for the company to be extra clear about its deliberations and selections has come from the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), an advisory panel for NASA from which Walkowicz resigned after the company first declined to alter the telescope’s identify. As not too long ago as 7 November the committee instructed NASA that the delays in releasing details about the Webb investigation “is each exasperating and a supply of dismay for the group”. Committee chair Charles Woodward, an astronomer on the College of Minnesota in Minneapolis, instructed Nature that it took longer than anticipated, however that NASA’s report was aware of group questions on Webb’s historical past. “They convey a decision to one thing that’s been elusive,” he says.
Scientific societies have additionally introduced stress to bear. The Royal Astronomical Society has adopted a coverage, at the very least quickly, of solely utilizing the JWST acronym in its publications, somewhat than the complete identify of the telescope. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has introduced it won’t require JWST to be spelled out on first reference in its journals, a departure from its common coverage about acronyms.
The Webb historic investigation will most likely be mentioned at upcoming conferences of teams such because the AAS and the APAC. And this controversy has additionally had broader ramifications inside NASA for the way it will identify objects going ahead. The company has reviewed and up to date its inner steering on naming missions and buildings, an company spokesperson says. Sooner or later it can convene a committee that features a historian, and conduct “a radical historic and authorized assessment”, prior to selecting names.
This text is reproduced with permission and was first revealed on November 18 2022.