Excitement around unprecedented new images of distant galaxies has reignited calls from some scientific and queer communities to rename the James Webb Space Telescope due to Webb’s alleged involvement in past government anti-LGTBQ policies in the mid-20th century. .
Images from the telescope, a project three decades in the making, were released Tuesday by NASA. The observatory, which was put into orbit in December 2021, is about the size of a tennis court and can take more detailed images from deeper space than any equipment of its kind.
NASA has heralded the mission as an “Apollo moment,” with the potential to answer probing questions on the frontier of space discovery, including about life on other planets. But the agency has also faced criticism for naming its flagship project after former NASA administrator James Webb, who previously served as deputy secretary of state during the Truman administration, when the federal government systematically eliminated its ranks of LGBTQ employees.
In a statement to NBC News, a NASA spokesperson said Tuesday that the agency’s historians conducted a “comprehensive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career,” including speaking with experts who “previously researched this topic extensively.
“NASA found no evidence at this time to justify changing the name of the telescope,” the statement said. “They are compiling their information now in an update that the agency will share.”
webb He headed NASA, then a fledgling space agency, from 1961 to 1968, playing a major role in the Apollo program. Prior to his position at NASA, he served in the Truman administration for a period in the 1950s now known as the Lavender Scare. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, thousands of federal employees were forced to resign or fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In his 2004 book “The Lavender Scare,” LGBTQ historian David K. Johnson writes that Webb worked with Truman and a Senate committee tasked with “determining the extent of employment of homosexuals and other sexual perverts in government.”
An editorial published in Scientific American in March 2021 by four scientists cites Johnson’s book as a source showing links Webb had to anti-LGBTQ policies. The authors call Webb “a man whose legacy is at best complicated and at worst complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.”
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and one of the authors of the Scientific American editorial, called the release of this week’s telescope images “bittersweet.”
“I am so excited about the new images and so angry at NASA headquarters,” she said. wrote on Twitter on Monday. “NASA leadership has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that what is now public information about (Webb’s) legacy means that it does not deserve to be named a Great Observatory.”
Prescod-Weinstein, one of the astronomers who spearheaded the telescope’s name change, organized a petition last year along with several other scientists to change its name. The petition has been signed by more than 1,700 people, most of whom work in astronomy or “a related field.” Instead, he asks NASA to “bestow this honor on someone whose legacy befits a telescope whose data will be used in discoveries that will inspire future generations of astronomers.”
Ahead of the release of the telescope images this week, the Just Space Alliance advocacy organization released a 40-minute documentary detailing evidence of Webb’s involvement in anti-LGBTQ policies.
“I think NASA has been making things difficult for everyone by not being willing to start or even engage in some kind of open and transparent conversation about the subject matter at hand, with this particular name for this particular telescope, and the idea of how we can name telescopes and other instruments in general,” said astrophysicist Brian Nord in the film.
Internal agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and published by the journal Nature in March showed that the agency knew about an appeal ruling involving a NASA employee who was fired in 1963 because his superiors thought he was gay. Webb was the head of the agency at the time.To follow NBC out in Twitter, Facebook & Instagram