NASA Investigates Renaming James Webb Space Telescope after Anti-LGBT+ Claims

Mon, 26 Jul 2021 12:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Science

Some astronomers argue the space agency’s next flagship observatory will memorialize discrimination...

NASA is considering whether to rename its flagship astronomical observatory, given reports alleging that James Webb, after whom it is named, was involved in persecuting gay and lesbian people during his career in government.

Keeping his name on the US$8.8-billion James Webb Space Telescope-set to launch later this year-would glorify bigotry and anti-LGBT+ sentiment, say some astronomers.

Others say there is not yet enough evidence against Webb, who was head of NASA from 1961 to 1968, and they are withholding judgement until the agency has finished an internal investigation.

Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe named the JWST after Webb in 2002, when the telescope was in the early stages of development.

O'Keefe chose the name because Webb had advocated that NASA keep science as a key part of its portfolio in the 1960s, even as the Apollo programme of human space exploration soaked up most of the agency's attention and budget.

"Without James Webb's leadership, there may have been no telescope or much of anything else at NASA noteworthy of a naming controversy," he says.

They also note the case of Clifford Norton, who was fired from his job at NASA because he was suspected to be gay in 1963, when Webb was NASA administrator.

Last year, an aerospace executive began an as-yet unsuccessful effort to rename a NASA centre in Mississippi that is named after John Stennis, a senator who voted repeatedly in favour of racial segregation in the 1960s.

In the past year or so, NASA has tried to address past discrimination against Black scientists and against women by naming its Washington DC headquarters after Mary Jackson, the first Black female engineer at the agency, and announcing that the flagship space telescope after the JWST will be named after Nancy Grace Roman, NASA's first chief astronomer.

One idea is to acknowledge LGBT+ rights in the acknowledgements sections of papers published using JWST data, says Johanna Teske, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC. Many are keen to see what the NASA investigation might unearth.

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