NASA Sticks with James Webb Telescope Name, Despite Homophobic Legacy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 5, 2021

James Webb
James Webb  (Source:Public domain / NASA)

NASA will not be reconsidering the name of the James Webb Telescope, set to launch into Earth orbit later this year, Newsweek reports, despite allegations of Webb's involvement in the Lavender Scare, a purge of LGTBQ+ people from the ranks of government employees.

The agency is standing firmly behind the name of the cutting-edge infrared telescope, despite an open letter with more than 1,000 signatories that demands a different name be chosen.

Nature reported that NASA looked into the matter, but "says it found no evidence to support the allegations."

"Since May, more than 1,200 people, including scientists who are slated to use the telescope after its planned December launch, have signed a petition calling for the JWST to be renamed," Nature said.

"Webb held multiple leadership positions in the US government during a period in which gay and lesbian federal employees were systematically fired because of their sexual orientation," a purge referred to now as the Lavender Scare. "For instance, he was NASA administrator when an agency employee was fired in 1963 on suspicion of being gay," the Nature article went on to say.

The letter cites the interrogation and firing of "NASA employee Clifford Norton, who was fired in 1963 while Webb was directing the agency," NPR said.

"The historical record is already clear: under Webb's leadership, queer people were persecuted," the authors of the letter state.

"I haven't seen evidence that Webb knew about this incident," said cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a queer person of color "who co-authored an article calling for the telescope to be renamed," NPR reported.

"But I think we have two options here," Prescod-Weinstein added. "Either he was a wildly incompetent administrator and didn't know that his head of security was interrogating employees in NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on and he was in some sense party to overseeing the interrogation of someone for being gay."

Following an "internal study," the Nature article says, "current agency administrator Bill Nelson released a one-sentence statement to some media outlets, including Nature, saying: 'We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.'"

But the acting chief historian for NASA, Brian Odom, acknowledged that the investigation was not as complete as it might have been, due to the COVID pandemic.

"Several relevant repositories, such as the National Archives in Washington DC and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence, Missouri, have been closed for long periods" thanks to COVID, Nature noted, and "Odom's team was not able to study materials from them that were not already digitized."

Astronomer Brian Nord, "an astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois," who is another co-author of the article calling for the telescope to be renamed, called the decision a "gut punch," and told Nature, "This is a refusal to confront history. If we can't have that, how are we going to shed light on the oppression that people are facing?"

As previously reported at EDGE, one famous casualty of the anti-LGBTQ+ policy was Frank Kameny, a gay government astronomer who took his case, unsuccessfully, all the way to the Supreme Court after being fired. Kameny became an influential LGBTQ+ civil rights pioneer.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.