In the shadow of controversy, NASA will not rename the new space telescope

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NASA doesn’t plan to rename its new $ 10 billion tech wonder, the James Webb Space Telescope, despite fears that its namesake, former NASA administrator James Webb, accepted government discrimination against gay and lesbian employees in the 1950s and 1960s.

The space agency told NPR it has investigated the matter and decided to keep the telescope’s name as is, ahead of the long-awaited launch in December.

“We have not found any evidence at this time to justify changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” said the NASA administrator. Bill Nelson.

The powerful telescope, often regarded as Hubble’s successor, will be able to see the light of the first galaxies in the universe; and analyze the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, looking for gases in the air that might indicate the presence of life.

But some people, while delighted with the telescope’s scientific promise, took issue with the name of Webb, who led the agency during the key years she worked to send astronauts to the moon.

The controversy breaks out

Earlier this year, more than 1,200 people, mostly astronomers or astronomy enthusiasts – including academics who want to use the new telescope for their own research – signed a petition urging NASA to rename the telescope, claiming Webb appears to have been complicit in the purge gay men in government jobs during his time in the public service, including when he held a senior position in the US State Department.

They cite evidence such as the interrogation of former NASA employee Clifford Norton, who was fired in 1963 while Webb ran the agency. “The historical record is already clear: Under Webb’s leadership, homosexuals have been persecuted,” the letter said.

“At best, Webb’s track record is complicated,” says Chanda Prescod Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire who co-authored a item asking that the telescope be renamed. “And at worst, we’re just sending this amazing instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe, in my opinion.”

She notes that Norton was arrested for gay activity, questioned by police, then picked up by NASA’s security chief and questioned at the agency.

“I did not see any evidence that Webb was aware of this incident,” she said. “But I think we have two options here: either he was an extremely incompetent administrator and didn’t know his security chief was interviewing employees at NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on, and he was sort of a part of overseeing someone’s interrogation because they are gay. ”

In response to the controversy, NASA opened an investigation “to examine Webb’s role in government,” but the agency provided no further details on how that review was conducted or who assessed. its findings – aside from mentioning that historians were involved.

“We’ve done everything we can at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” senior science communications officer Karen Fox told NPR in an email on Wednesday. “These efforts failed to uncover any evidence to support a name change.”

The lack of transparency is all the more troubling for Prescod-Weinstein.

“I have to tell you that I am afraid that they have chosen not to speak about it publicly,” she said.

As a black and queer person, she says, she wants the agency to explain her reasoning, especially given the facts that have already been openly discussed.

“I’m basically a NASA fan,” says Prescod-Weinstein, who adds that she is a member of several NASA collaborations and was in a NASA postdoctoral program. “And so it’s particularly difficult for me to feel like I’m in the grip of the agency that I admired during my career and to which I have devoted part of my career.”

How Webb ended up on a telescope

Space telescopes are usually named after famous scientists. The Hubble Space Telescope honors American astronomer Edwin Hubble. The Spitzer Space Telescope was named after American astronomer and theoretical physicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is named after the late Indo-American Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

The decision to name this telescope Webb was made by another NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, which is now at Syracuse University. Like Webb, O’Keefe did not have a scientific background before coming to NASA, but rather professional management and administration.

He says that in his field, Webb was an imposing figure, who helped establish the National Academy of Public Administration and was a thought leader in developing the best ways to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to pursue lofty goals.

When O’Keefe took charge of NASA, he said everyone was referring to an exciting new space telescope that was in development as the “Next Generation Space Telescope.”

“It’s about as enlightening and exciting as, you know, anything,” said O’Keefe, who was previously Secretary of the Navy, a role that involves deciding on the names of ships.

He decided, after informal conversations with others at NASA, to name the new telescope after Webb. “There was no group of commissioners appointed to come up with a name,” said O’Keefe, who said everyone he spoke to seemed to like the idea.

An astronaut told O’Keefe that NASA probably wouldn’t have continued to exist without the way Webb established the agency. And when the new name of the telescope was announced, in 2002, the New York Times Noted that astronomers didn’t seem to care. They were especially happy that the project had the support and attention of senior agency officials.

History revisited

In 2015, however, sex and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage wrote an article. entitled, “Should NASA name a telescope after a dead man who persecuted homosexuals in the 1950s?” Since then, there has been an online debate on Webb in blogs and Twitter that has increased over the past year as astronomers and historians weighed in and December the launch date is approaching.

“It’s unpleasant to think that NASA’s awe-inspiring new telescope, whose exciting capabilities underpin so many current and future careers, is named after someone who helped implement a life-ruining campaign of so many people, ”he added. wrote Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer based at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

For O’Keefe, all of this controversy came out of nowhere. But he understands the concern.

“This is an important historical question, to understand how we could have tolerated the purge of talented professionals on the basis of their personal preferences,” said O’Keefe. “It is so reprehensible. There is no question about it, and I applaud the effort to bring out the visibility and awareness of it.”

At the same time, he saw nothing to convince him that Webb was directly involved in demanding or implementing a purge of gay government officials. “Then to suggest that he would be held responsible for this activity when there is no evidence to allude to it – that is an injustice,” says O’Keefe.

John Logsdon, a George Washington University historian who knew Webb when he ran the agency, said the NASA director was an accomplished Washington insider and “a product of the value system of his day.”

“I don’t think he took any particular steps that were unacceptable at the time,” Logsdon said. “But in this new ‘awakened’ world, they probably wouldn’t be acceptable.”

Prescod-Weinstein, meanwhile, believes the names of major scientific instruments like this should convey the best of what humanity can be.

To her personally, it all conjures up “the struggle I had to fight to be okay with myself as a queer person. And I don’t think that should be associated with the amazing thing that is the cosmos. “.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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