Despite massive outside pressure from LGBTQ activists and other social justice-minded scientists, NASA has rejected calls to rename what Futurism referred to as a “homophobic telescope,” aptly called the James Webb Space Telescope.
Earlier this year, over 1,200 people, including astronomers and researchers, signed a petition calling on NASA to rename the telescope, alleging that former NASA administrator James Webb, who oversaw the Apollo missions after President Kennedy appointed him, regularly persecuted homosexuals under his employment.
The historical record is already clear: under Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted. Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo. Leaders are responsible not only for the actions of those they lead, but the climate they create within their spheres of influence. As we have noted previously, Webb’s legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution.
The time has come to choose a future that is inspiring to all of us. We demand that NASA immediately rename JWST, and bestow this honor on someone whose legacy befits a telescope whose data will be used in discoveries that will inspire future generations of astronomers, discoveries that we the undersigned will make.
Controversy involving Webb sparked when noted LGBTQ activist Dan Savage wrote an article in 2015 titled, “Should NASA Name A Telescope After a Dead Guy Who Persecuted Gay People in the 1950s?”
According to NPR, critics of Webb often cite the case of former NASA employee Clifford Norton, a gay man who was fired from the agency in 1963 under Webb’s leadership. Norton was also interrogated by police and NASA’s head of security for “gay activity.” Investigators and historians have been unable to determine if Webb had a hand in Norton’s treatment.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire said:
I haven’t seen evidence that Webb knew about this incident. But I think we have two options here: Either he was a wildly incompetent administrator and didn’t 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.
After a lengthy investigation, NASA ultimately concluded that “no evidence” was uncovered that would warrant removing Webb’s name from the telescope.
“We’ve done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” senior science communications officer Karen Fox told NPR. “Those efforts have not uncovered evidence warranting a name change.”
Nonetheless, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who NPR described as both black and queer, now claims that an object bearing the namesake of a homophobic bigot will now be circling above the earth for decades to come. “We’re basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it, in my opinion,” she lamented.
The cosmologist also believed that NASA was not entirely transparent in its investigation of Webb.
Launching this December, the James Webb Space Telescope has been hailed as a “successor to Hubble,” and will be able to “see light from the earliest galaxies in the universe and analyze the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, searching for gases in the air that might indicate the presence of life,” according to NPR.