A Tangled Webb: Some Future Telescope Users Urge NASA to Change Device Name - Evanston Roundtable

A Tangled Webb: Some Future Telescope Users Urge NASA to Change Device Name – Evanston Roundtable


A composite image shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its namesake, former NASA Administrator James Webb. Credit: US Department of Veterans Affairs

As the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) quietly peers into infrared radiation in space to reveal more layers of cosmic history, controversy over its namesake simmers millions of miles from our home on Earth, where a move is in progress to change the name of the telescope.

James E. Webb led NASA as its second administrator from 1961 to 1968, in the midst of the Apollo program, which aimed to land humans on the moon. Earlier in Webb’s career in public service, he served as Under Secretary of State from 1949 to 1952 for President Harry Truman.

Webb’s tenure at the State Department spanned a decades-long period when government officials fired or forced the resignation of thousands of federal employees in an era later dubbed the “lavender scare” by the US. writer David K. Johnson in a 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

Webb’s association with the mass layoff of so many employees because of their sexual orientation prompted a movement to rename the telescope, which was originally called NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope.

The JWST is the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA led the development of the telescope, and it was a former NASA administrator who got Webb as the telescope’s namesake.

In an American scientific opinion piece starting in March 2021, four astronomers – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Tuttle from the University of Washington, Lucianne Walkowicz from JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium, and Brian Nord from Fermilab and the University of Chicago – expressed dismay that NASA named this new telescope for a man “whose legacy is at best complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination within the federal government.”

They wrote: “The name of such an important mission, which promises to live on in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should reflect our highest values. James Webb’s legacy is the antithesis of the dream and sense of freedom inspired by the exploration of deep time and deep space.

Because they had been “unmasked,” many of those who had lost their jobs during the Lavender Scare were not hired to work again in their chosen career; some were so devastated that they committed suicide.

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