Home Web information New revelations pressure NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope

New revelations pressure NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope


Sadness. Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. These are some of the reactions from LGBTQ+ astronomers to the latest revelations about NASA’s decision not to rename the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), given that the agency had long had evidence suggesting that its administrator of the Apollo era, James Webb, was involved in the persecution of homosexuals. and lesbian federal employees in the 1950s and 1960s.

The new information came to light late last month when nearly 400 pages of emails were uploaded by the newspaper Nature, who obtained the exchanges under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Since early last year, four researchers have been leading the charge to get NASA to change the name of the flagship $10 billion mission, launching in December 2021, which will provide unparalleled views of the universe. The emails make it clear that, behind the scenes, NASA was well aware of Webb’s problematic legacy, even though agency leadership refused to remove his name from the project.

“Reading the exchanges, it seems like LGBTQ+ scientists and the concerns we’ve raised aren’t really what they’re interested in,” says Rutgers University’s Yao-Yuan Mao, who runs the online Astronomy List and of astrophysics by openly LGBTQ+ researchers.

“It’s almost amusing how incompetent this whole thing was,” says Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at Ohio State University, “and how little they stopped to think about the importance of this problem for the queer astronomical community and how important NASA is to young gay kids trying to find ambitious reasons to keep going.

As the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, JWST’s name will likely one day be known to schoolchildren, suburban parents and the elderly, which is why LGBTQ+ astronomers are so convinced that the observatory’s namesake should not be someone who has been involved in homophobic guidelines. Many of them see NASA’s resistance to renaming JWST as part of a dismaying trend in which the agency’s actions speak louder than – and run counter to – its stated policy of promoting diversity and inclusion within its workforce. Last month, for example, NASA officials rushed to explain their abrupt cancellation of an initiative to make it easier for employees at its Goddard Space Flight Center to display personal pronouns in intra-agency communications.

At a March 30 meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, officials said the agency’s investigation into Webb’s potential involvement in LGBTQ+ persecution was still ongoing and that they planned to submit a final report in the coming months. “I’m looking for additional evidence that might conflict with the understanding we currently have of Webb’s role in this,” said NASA acting chief historian Brian Odom. At the same meeting, the agency’s director of astrophysics, Paul Hertz, even offered some contrition, acknowledging that “NASA’s decision is painful for some, and it seems wrong to many. we”.

To repair its damaged reputation with the LGBTQ+ community, some astronomers say, the agency should now bow to mounting pressure and strike Webb’s name from its flagship telescope.

Renaming JWST would be “a simple but very impactful thing that NASA can do, both for astronomers and the general public,” says Johanna Teske, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “Why wouldn’t they grasp opportunity to do this and live up to one of their core values?”

Originally known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, JWST was renamed Webb in 2002, a decision made by Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator at the time. Little was known at the time about Webb’s role in a period of mid-twentieth-century American history known as the Lavender Scare – a McCarthy-style witch hunt in which many gay and lesbians were considered national security risks and subsequently monitored, harassed and fired.

Prior to leading NASA, Webb was second in command at the US State Department. In an email dated September 3, 2021 Nature obtained via FOIA, a redacted writer notes that paraphrased archival documents in a 2004 history book say, “Webb met with President [Harry S.] Truman on June 22, 1950 to establish how the White House, the State Department and the Huey Committee could “work together on the homosexual investigation”. A large number of LGBTQ+ workers were fired from the State Department before Webb resigned from his position there in 1952.

Critics say homophobia followed Webb to NASA. During his tenure as the agency’s administrator between 1961 and 1968 – a critical period in its preparations to land astronauts on the moon – an alleged gay employee, Clifford Norton, was interrogated for hours about his sexual history by NASA’s chief of security and ultimately fired for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct. This was part of the basis for calls to rename JWST, which NASA responded by conducting an internal investigation into Webb’s complicity in such actions.

On September 27, 2021, current agency administrator Bill Nelson released a one-sentence statement saying, “We have found no evidence at this time that supports changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. ” The announcement seems odd, given that, as early as April 2021, a redacted author in the newly published emails noted that the official who fired Norton said the firing happened because his advisers told him the dismissal for homosexual conduct was considered a “custom within the agency.”

Prior to Nelson’s statement, the redacted author of the September 3, 2021 email strongly recommended changing the name of the telescope. “That Webb played a leading role in the Lavender Scare is undeniable,” they wrote.

“It seems that, from the start, the whole research effort was undermined by the fact that the goal was to dismiss the criticisms they received,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the one of the scientists leading the study. tap to change JWST name.

A particularly infuriating episode for many LGBTQ+ astronomers is an episode referenced in the emails in which Hertz said he contacted more than 10 members of the astrophysical community, none of whom identified as LGBTQ+ and none of whom them expressed disappointment that JWST would maintain its issue. Name.

“I have worked closely with Paul Hertz for over a decade, and I consider him a colleague and a mentor,” says Gaudi. “He knows me. He knows I’m gay. And he didn’t ask me. Like, what the hell is that?

The ad hoc nature of NASA’s response to this controversy highlights the fact that federal agencies rarely follow clear methods for naming or renaming large-scale projects. Such decisions often seem to be made at the whim of senior officials, without considering the broader input of other stakeholders, including the general public. In late 2019, for example, the National Science Foundation renamed its Large Synoptic Telescope currently under construction after astronomer Vera C. Rubin, who was instrumental in the discovery of dark matter. According to Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the change stemmed from a suggestion made in the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology rather than a a major effort.

NASA’s next wide-field infrared telescope has been similarly renamed in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, another pioneering astronomer and NASA’s first female leader, although in this case the agency followed suit. an official policy directive for naming major projects. Most NASA name changes have taken place before a project has been completed or launched, but there is also a priority for post-launch changes. The Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer was replaced by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, after its late principal investigator, while the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project was renamed in honor of meteorologist Verner E Suomi three months after launch.

The cost of such undertakings, which involve the modification of official documents, websites and graphic designs, seems quite negligible. The Rubin Observatory’s budget of around $40 million a year did not see a significant increase when it changed its name, Mao says, suggesting such changes carry minimal monetary risks for what could be substantial rewards.

“The name change, in my opinion, elevates the scientific community of Vera Rubin,” adds Mao. “The name not only inspires me to do exciting science, but also reminds me that it is our responsibility to make this field a more inclusive space.”

Some of the refusals to change JWST’s name have come from those who insist that he was not a hatemonger but simply a complicated character – a man of his time who, like everyone else, made good and bad.

“It’s seductive to want to search for monsters,” says Walkowicz. “But I think monsters are a myth that we tell ourselves about how prejudice and discrimination are implemented. We focus too much on a cartoonish idea of ​​what discrimination looks like rather than how discrimination is a multilevel political decision taken by many people. While Webb deserves credit for helping place astronauts on the moon under his tenure, Walkowicz adds, he also bears responsibility for his administration’s homophobic actions.

Regardless of how NASA proceeds in the future, the damage done to its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community will take time and effort to repair. “I lost faith, and I think a lot of people did,” says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire and another leader of the push to rename JWST. But change is still possible, she says: “As scientists, we often realize we were wrong and we set a new course.