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James Webb telescope will keep its name despite criticism, NASA says

Nov. 18, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 18, 2022 at 7:11 p.m.

Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope on Nov. 2, 2016, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope on Nov. 2, 2016, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Justine McDaniel Washington Post

NASA will not rename the James Webb Space Telescope after calls to do so from critics, the agency said Thursday, saying an investigation had found no evidence that Webb, a former NASA administrator, had been involved in promoting anti-LGBTQ policies during his time in federal government.

The agency launched the investigation into Webb’s history in March 2021, after a group of scientists writing in Scientific American criticized the telescope’s name and launched a petition demanding that the agency change it. Critics of Webb have argued that he was complicit in the U.S. government’s Cold War-era campaign to discriminate against and fire homosexual federal workers.

The agency said it had sought “any available evidence” tying Webb to the Lavender Scare, when thousands of gay federal employees were forced out of their jobs from the late 1940s to the 60s. Through historical records, NASA historians sought to answer whether Webb was responsible for the anti-gay policy, involved in firings, or otherwise linked to discrimination, and found he was not, the agency said.

“The purpose of this investigation was to go where the evidence took us, see what evidence was out there … and come to some conclusion,” NASA chief historian Brian Odom said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Knowing this history will help us go forward as an organization – not just an organization, but a country – that learns from its past.”

The findings were laid out in an 88-page report published Thursday, which NASA said came from a review of more than 50,000 pages of government archives by its historians. Critics questioned the report, some saying it was a “selective historical reading.”

The powerful deep space telescope, which was launched last year on Dec. 25, was named for Webb because of his impact on ensuring that NASA would pursue not only human space flight but also space science, according to the agency.

Now orbiting the sun, the telescope will study the first galaxies after the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planetary systems, and the evolution of the Solar System. It has captured galaxies, nebulas, and other images of the distant universe.

Webb was NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968, during which time the agency embarked on the Apollo missions that would put the first man on the moon. Webb supported the idea of a major space telescope and oversaw investment in the development of scientific probes that provided the U.S. with first glimpses of space from Mars and Venus, according to NASA.

He also worked at the State Department from 1949 to 1952, when the federal government had begun the expulsion of homosexual workers. An executive order from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 made it policy across federal agencies to identify and fire federal workers who were gay as a “security” matter, a policy that endured until 1975, according to the NASA report.

Critics of Webb’s say his role as a federal leader during a time when LGBTQ people were being purged from the government workforce makes him complicit in persecution – and means the telescope’s name evokes a harmful chapter of American history.

On Thursday, the scientists who wrote the Scientific American piece – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Brian Nord, Sarah Tuttle and Lucianne Walkowicz – criticized NASA’s approach and said they planned to study the report.

As administrator, they said in a statement Thursday, Webb would have known what was going on at his agency. The absence of “a piece of paper that explicitly says, ‘James Webb knew about this’ ” does not prove he didn’t know, they indicated.

“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership – activities that were actually conducted by other people – but refuse to accept his culpability for the problems,” they wrote. “NASA is engaging in historical cherry picking, which is deeply unscientific in our view.”

The four also argued the report’s method and findings imply that managers are not responsible for discrimination that occurs under their tenure, “an explicitly anti-equity, diversity and inclusion stance that places responsibility on the most marginalized people to fend for ourselves.”

In a statement announcing the release of the report, NASA said that understanding the history would help guide the agency in its work to ensure equal opportunities for its employees and “advance full equality for LGBTQI+ Americans.”

“The report illuminates that this period in federal policy – and in American history more broadly – was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today,” the statement said.

Broadly, NASA historians sought to understand whether Webb was a proponent of keeping homosexual people out of the workforce and whether he oversaw enforcement of that policy, Odom said. They also zeroed in on specific incidents that could have linked Webb to knowledge or support of the firings, which Odom said he was particularly interested in investigating but didn’t find yield major findings.

Because the policy was the standard across federal government at the time – though “we look at [it] today and it’s an abhorrent policy” – that meant that firings were likely considered routine and would not have reached the administrator’s desk, Odom said.

“This is a moment that we can learn a lot from, this period of history… . It’s an important topic that we shouldn’t forget about,” Odom said. “I just want folks to know that this was done in the most objective way possible.”

Keeping the name, Webb’s critics have argued, sends the wrong message.

“Discrimination against queer people, including scientists, still affects their lives and careers,” the four scientists wrote in 2021. “So what signal does it send to current and future generations of scientists when we prioritize the legacies of complicit government officials over the dreams of the next generation?”

Odom, who spent months combing through material at various federal archives, said he understood people’s reactions.

“Ultimately, as a historian, I have to fall back on evidence,” he said. “I understand why people feel the way they do. These things are serious. They have real-world consequences. The past is never closed; in fact, it’s hardly ever past.”

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