We’re all super excited about the JWST’s potential. Today’s image release makes it clear that this scope does work. But our excitement is tempered by knowing that this telescope isn’t without controversy: specifically, we need to address the elephant in the room – its name.
There are a couple of reasons why the name isn’t the best, independent of what James Webb did during his time at the State Department and at NASA, though both of those issues are very significant.
First, the usual process for naming a telescope is to give it a utilitarian name during building and launch and only bestow a formal name after launch, commissioning, and a return of good data. The name is decided by a committee of different NASA centers. That process was not followed with the JWST. In 2002, then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe unilaterally decided the Next Generation Space Telescope would be renamed JWST without input from the scientific community at large.
Like O’Keefe, Webb was a government bureaucrat and not a scientist or engineer. While bureaucrats are needed to keep nations going, they are not who we normally name missions after. Space telescopes are generally named after scientists who pioneered the areas of research that the telescope will advance: such as Edwin Hubble, Enrico Fermi, Neil Swift, and others.
So, broken procedure and a break from tradition. Today, it is becoming common to name telescopes before their launch, such as the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, and we dread the day that will one day come when an already named telescope fails to function and some brilliant researcher’s name is forever tied to a defunct moment in history.
Webb is also a name that reminds many researchers of a time in our past that is painful.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Webb was complicit in an event known as the Lavender Scare. Just as the Red Scare was led by propaganda from then-Senator Joe McCarthy and persecuted American Communists – both real and perceived – the Lavendar Scare aimed at a different group of people – the LGBTQ community. Through a similar process of moral persecution and identification, possible members of the LGBTQ community were harassed, questioned, and even fired. However, when the astronomy community began to push back on the questionable naming of the new telescope, NASA’s response, to say the least, was lackluster.
NASA’s own acting chief historian, Brian Odom, along with an unnamed external historian, had difficulty accessing archives due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Working with what they could, they determined that there was no evidence to support the allegations that Webb was involved in an organizational policy that persecuted and fired LGBTQ employees at NASA. So NASA announced that would not be renaming the telescope. Not only did NASA not present their findings to the public when they made their announcement, reporters and scientists had to file Freedom of Information requests to see what was actually discovered.
And in the midst of all that research was the story of Clifford Norton, who was accused, questioned, and fired from NASA for being homosexual. He pushed back and sued the agency, winning an appeals court ruling that he was wrongfully dismissed. Within that ruling, the chief judge noted that the person who fired Norton had asked if it was possible to keep him on since he was a “good employee” but that the personnel office had said it was “custom within the agency” to fire suspected homosexuals.
A documentary on James Webb and his potential role in the Lavendar Scare has been released by The JustSpace Alliance. We’ll link to it in our show notes, and we strongly encourage you to watch this well-researched show. We will have a review of the documentary in a later episode.
NASA Announces Contract For Next-Generation Space Telescope Named After Space Pioneer (NASA)
Who is James Webb? (NASA)