Excitement over unprecedented new images of distant galaxies has reignited calls from some in the scientific and queer communities to rename the James Webb Space Telescope due to Webb’s alleged involvement in past anti-LGTBQ government policies in the mid-twentieth century.
Images of the telescope, a project in the making for three decades, were released Tuesday by NASA. The observatory, which was launched into orbit in December 2021, is about the size of a tennis court and can take more detailed images deeper in space than any such equipment.
NASA called the mission an “Apollo moment,” with the potential to answer probing questions at the frontier of space discovery, including about life on other planets. But the agency has also come under fire for naming its flagship project after former NASA administrator James Webb, who previously served as undersecretary of state in the Truman administration when the federal government systematically purged its ranks of LGBTQ employees.
In a statement to NBC News, a NASA spokesperson said Tuesday that the agency’s historians conducted an “extensive search of currently accessible records on James Webb and his career,” which included interviews with experts. who “had already done extensive research on this subject”.
“NASA has found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the telescope’s name,” the statement said. “They are now compiling their information in an update that the agency will share.”
Webb led NASA, then a fledgling space agency, from 1961 to 1968, playing a major role in the Apollo program. Prior to his role at NASA, he served in the Truman administration during a period in the 1950s now known as Lavender Scare. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, thousands of federal employees were forced to resign or were fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In his 2004 book “The Lavender Scare,” LGBTQ historian David K. Johnson writes that Webb worked with Truman and a Senate committee tasked with “determining the extent of the employment of homosexuals and other sexual perverts within the government”.
An op-ed published in Scientific American in March 2021 by four scientists cites Johnson’s book as a source showing the ties Webb had to anti-LGBTQ policies. The authors call Webb “a man whose legacy is at best complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination within the federal government.”
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and one of the editorial writers for Scientific American, called this week’s release of the telescope images “bittersweet.”
“I’m so excited about the new images and so angry at NASA headquarters,” she said. wrote on Twitter on Monday. “NASA management has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that what is now public information about (Webb’s) legacy means he does not deserve a major observatory named after him.”
Prescod-Weinstein, one of the astronomers leading the mission to rename the telescope, organized a petition last year with several other scientists to rename it. The petition has been signed by more than 1,700 people, most of whom work in astronomy or “a related field.” He calls on NASA to “award this honor to someone whose legacy befits a telescope whose data will be used in discoveries that will inspire future generations of astronomers.”
Ahead of the telescope images being released this week, advocacy organization Just Space Alliance released a 40-minute documentary detailing evidence of Webb’s involvement in anti-LGBTQ politics.
“I think NASA has made it harder for everyone by not wanting to start or even participate in some sort of transparent and open conversation about the issue at hand, with this particular name for this particular telescope, and the idea of how we name telescopes and other instruments in general,” astrophysicist Brian Nord said in the film.
Internal agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and published by the journal Nature in March showed the agency was aware of an appeal decision involving a NASA employee who was fired in 1963 because his superiors thought he was gay. Webb was the head of the agency at the time.Follow NBC Release on Twitter, Facebook & instagram