Despite controversy, NASA won't rename Webb telescope
(NEXSTAR) – The James Webb Telescope, the largest and most powerful space telescope known to humans, has been transfixing us since it shared its first set of stunning images earlier this year. It has also been a matter of controversy recently.
NASA’s $10 billion Webb telescope left Earth nearly a year ago and reached its lookout point 1 million miles away in January. Following a lengthy process of aligning mirrors and calibrating its instruments, Webb began peering into depths of space we’ve never seen before.
Meanwhile, NASA has been facing pushback on the space telescope’s name.
James Webb, after serving as undersecretary of state during then-President Harry Truman’s administration, was appointed as the second-ever administrator of NASA by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He served in that role until 1968 and helped the agency prepare to land a man on the moon – which would happen a few months after he left his role.
Webb has also been accused of promoting anti-LGBTQ policies while at NASA, CNET and CNN report. Scientists, activists, and others called on NASA to rename the space telescope because of these allegations.
As a group of astronomers wrote in a 2021 piece for Scientific American, Webb reportedly contributed to implementing a then-active federal policy calling for the removal of LGBTQ individuals from the workforce. NASA then launched an investigation into Webb’s terms at both the State Department and NASA.
In a report released Friday, NASA said its investigation into Webb’s time with the space agency revealed “no evidence that Webb was either a leader or proponent of firing government employees for their sexual orientation.”
Over 50,000 pages of documents were reviewed by NASA historians, resulting in an 89-page report from NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom. Ultimately, the investigation closely reviewed a handful of incidents.
In one, historians found Webb’s key involvement was trying to limit Congressional access to personnel records of the Department of State. “None of the evidence found links Webb to actions or follow-up in pursuit of firings after these discussions,” NASA’s press release reads. In another, historians sought to determine if Webb knew of the firing of Clifford J. Norton in 1963.
Norton was a budget analyst fired after being arrested in Washington, D.C. for making a “homosexual advance.” Norton sued the Civil Service Commission and later won the 1969 federal case Norton v. Macy. Historians report finding no evidence that Webb knew of Norton’s firing.
“For decades, discrimination against LGBTQI+ federal employees was not merely tolerated, it was shamefully promoted by federal policies. The Lavender Scare that took place following World War II is a painful part of America’s story and the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “After an exhaustive search of U.S. government and Truman library archives, NASA’s historical investigation found, ‘To date, no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation,’ as stated on page four of the report.”
Based on its findings, NASA said it has no plans to change the name of the Webb telescope. Officials add that its report “illuminates that this period in federal policy – and in American history more broadly – was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”
The same astronomers that called for the renaming of Webb last year released a statement Friday accusing NASA of “engaging in historical cherry picking.”
“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership – activities that were actually conducted by other people – but refuse to accept his culpability to the problems,” they wrote. “Moreover, we are deeply concerned by the implications that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination that happens on their watch.”