The James Webb telescope, considered a successor to Hubble in space observation missions, this week revealed its first images of deep space. After 20 years of collaborative preparation between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Aerospace Agency, this name has quickly become synonymous with scientific ecstasy, as it is equipped to visualize the immensity of space with a clarity and quality never before seen.
However, many scientists, astronomers and researchers remain outraged by the telescope’s christening, and since 2021, they have been lobbying space agencies to change the name.
The space observer is named after NASA’s second director of administration, US military and congressman James Edwin Webb. On November 14, 1961, he was invited by John F. Kennedy to replace the then acting director, Hugh L. Dryden. As a result, his name was linked to the various Apollo missions in the 1960s, during the space race.
However, Webb is also linked to controversies of the United States government. During his time as Secretary of State in the 1950s, he was responsible for enforcing discriminatory policies against the LGBTQ+ community, in a movement known as the “Lavender Scare” during the Cold War.
In practice, the administrative decisions taken were motivated by the moral panic that gays and lesbians represented a threat to society, in a similar movement to what happened with those accused of communism during the McCarthy administration.
As a result of these policies, many members of the LGBTQ+ community were persecuted and expelled from public office. Within NASA, James Webb did not do much different: during his administration, he fired employee Clifford Norton in 1963 for “immoral, indecent and shameful conduct” after suspecting homosexuality.
Later, Norton sued and won the institution in court, for wrongful dismissal.
NASA saw no reason to change
Even as they celebrate the successes of the telescope’s space operation, part of the scientific community still resents Webb’s decisions.
“Many astronomers are very unhappy that the observatory is named after him. It’s hard to want to use an instrument using the name of someone who wants to deny its own existence,” wrote American astronomer Phil Plait in your newsletterbad astronomy.
Prior to its launch on December 25, 2021, there was a petition for space agencies to change the telescope’s name. Until October of last year, the petition had 1,700 signatures, but it was not successful.
In September of last year, Bill Nelson, NASA’s current managing director, explained that the agency did not intend to rename the space observatory.
“We have found no evidence at this time to support the renaming of the James Webb Space Telescope,” he said in a statement.
In March of this year, the periodical nature published 400 pages of NASA documents obtained under the Access to Information Act. In them, there were papers that made the discrimination explicit: “Nasa decided that the removal of homosexual employees would be its policy. They had the possibility of choice during the administration in webb to decide or modify this policy.”
Currently, after the release of the first images, several scientists and astronomy enthusiasts moved the hashtag “#RenameJWST” (“rename JWST”, in free translation) to get a response from NASA.
The space agency has not issued any new position on the issue.
With information from The Guardian and Scientific American