NASA is coping widespread criticism over its name choice of the James Webb Space Telescope, with the public, astronomers and the company’s own employees petitioning the agency to change the telescope’s name due to Webb’s questionable history on LGBTQI issues.

The James Webb Space Telescope, according to NASA, will replace the Hubble Space Telescope, as its flagship astrophysics mission.

Webb worked as NASA’s second-ever administrator, leading the agency from 1961 to 1968. While his name may be synonymous with the Apollo moon landing, he is associated with being complicit in the discrimination against gay and lesbian NASA employees.

Lavender Scare

The petition, which has so far gained over 1200 signatures, states that prior to Webb’s role at NASA he had served as the Undersecretary of State during “the purge of queer people from government service known as the ‘Lavender Scare.’”

“Archival evidence clearly indicates that Webb was in high-level conversations regarding the creation of this policy and resulting actions. As we have noted previously, Webb’s legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution,” the petition states. 

Both organisers of the petition and critics of NASA’s decision have made specific mention of the 1963 “immoral conduct” firing of Clifford Norton, which took place under Webb’s tenure.

“We, the undersigned, demand that NASA’s next-generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), be renamed. This new mission reflects the rainbow of possible universes that our community imagines, dreams about, and works for, and its name should reflect its future legacy,” the petition reads.

NASA Says No Evidence Of Homophobia

James Webb. Image: NASA.

Whilst NASA undertook a review into the naming of the new telescope, NASA chief Bill Nelson reaffirmed the organisation’s position that it would stick to the name. He told NPR that they “have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

NASA had in 2019 NASA changed the name of an asteroid after learning that its original name had Nazi connotations, whilst in 2020 it vowed to stop using racist names for space objects.

According to one of the petition organisers and University of New Hampshire cosmologist, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “at best, Webb’s record is complicated and at worst, we’re basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it, in my opinion.”

NASA Ignores Requests From Over 1,200 Astronomers

Another of the petition organisers, Sarah Tuttle, took to twitter to vent their frustrations regarding the concerning message being sent from NASA in regards to inclusivity, stating “NASA is relying on cowardice & poor PR technique to leak that they will not be renaming the JWST, named after a career administrator who oversaw homophobic persecution & development of psychological warfare, ignoring the request for reconsideration from 1,200 astronomers.”

Tuttle, who is an astrophysicist and Assistant Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Washington, said in a second tweet that NASA  “have ignored both the petitioners and the advisory committee that requested an investigation, and have provided no details on either their research or their decision.”

The telescope is worth nearly $10 billion and is scheduled to launch on December 18. It will be used in the studying of the universe’s first stars and galaxies and identifying potential signs of life on nearby planets.


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