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NASA Will Not Change the James Webb Telescope’s Identify

James Webb led NASA within the Fifties and 60s, in the course of the Chilly Conflict–period “Lavender Scare,” when authorities businesses typically enforced insurance policies that discriminated towards homosexual and lesbian federal employees. For that purpose, astronomers and others have lengthy known as for NASA to alter the identify of the James Webb House Telescope. Earlier this yr, the area company agreed to finish a full investigation into Webb’s suspected position within the remedy and firing of LGBTQ staff.

This afternoon, NASA launched that long-awaited report by the company’s chief historian Brian Odom. In an accompanying press launch, NASA officers made clear that the company is not going to change the telescope’s identify, writing: “Primarily based on the accessible proof, the company doesn’t plan to alter the identify of the James Webb House Telescope. Nevertheless, the report illuminates that this era in federal coverage—and in American historical past extra broadly—was a darkish chapter that doesn’t replicate the company’s values as we speak.”

Odom was tasked with discovering what proof, if any, hyperlinks Webb to homophobic insurance policies and choices. Monitoring down proof of contentious 60-year-old occasions made for a troublesome topic of research, Odom says, however he was in a position to attract on loads of materials from the Nationwide Archives in Faculty Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very severely,” he says.

These allegations embrace these made by NASA worker Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming that he had been fired in 1963 after he was seen in a automotive with one other man. He was taken into police custody, his lawsuit states, and NASA safety subsequently introduced him to the company’s headquarters and interrogated him all through the evening. He was later terminated from his job.

Such remedy of federal staff suspected to be homosexual or lesbian was commonplace on the time, following a 1953 govt order by President Dwight Eisenhower, which listed “sexual perversion” among the many sorts of behaviors thought-about suspicious. Nonetheless, the NASA report states, “No proof has been positioned displaying Webb knew of Norton’s firing on the time. As a result of it was accepted coverage throughout the federal government, the firing was, extremely possible—although, sadly—thought-about unexceptional.”

The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate critics who for years have been making a case to alter JWST’s identify. “Webb has at greatest a sophisticated legacy, together with his participation within the promotion of psychological warfare. His actions didn’t earn him a $10 billion monument,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist on the College of New Hampshire, and three different astronomers and astrophysicists in a assertion on Substack as we speak. They query the interpretation {that a} lack of express proof implies that Webb had no data of, or hand in, firings inside his personal company, writing: “In such a situation, we have now to imagine he was comparatively incompetent as a pacesetter: the administrator of NASA ought to know if his chief of safety is extrajudicially interrogating folks.”

Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this launch—on the Friday afternoon earlier than the Thanksgiving vacation—isn’t a coincidence, a approach to make the report much less broadly learn. “The truth that they did it despite the fact that it’s LGBT STEM Day tells you concerning the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an e-mail to WIRED.

NASA normally names telescopes after distinguished astronomers, just like the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He led the company whereas it superior the area program towards the moon touchdown and promoted astronomy analysis, however he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.

Regardless that company officers made the decision to maintain Webb’s identify, Odom says, “We must always nonetheless use this historical past for instance of a previous that was traumatic for lots of people. This previous, no matter Webb’s position in it was, is necessary to us going ahead.”

That NASA is selecting to not rename the telescope is “not stunning, however disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer and cochair of the American Astronommical Society’s committee for sexual orientation and gender minorities in astronomy. Whether or not Webb knew of Norton’s remedy, or whether or not proof of that exists, just isn’t actually related, Danner argues, since Webb stood for these insurance policies as NASA administrator. “He’s simply the flawed identify to indicate the way forward for astronomy.”