NASA Investigates Renaming James Webb Area Telescope after Anti-LGBT+ Claims

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NASA is contemplating whether or not to rename its flagship astronomical observatory, given experiences alleging that James Webb, after whom it’s named, was concerned in persecuting homosexual and lesbian individuals throughout his profession in authorities. Conserving his title on the US$8.8-billion James Webb Area Telescope (JWST)—set to launch later this yr—would glorify bigotry and anti-LGBT+ sentiment, say some astronomers. However others say there may be not but sufficient proof in opposition to Webb, who was head of NASA from 1961 to 1968, and they’re withholding judgement till the company has completed an inside investigation.

The JWST, which can peer into the distant reaches of the cosmos, is NASA’s largest astronomical venture in a long time, so the stakes are excessive. In Could, citing Webb’s purported involvement in discrimination, 4 outstanding astronomers launched a petition to alter the telescope’s title. It has amassed 1,250 signatories, together with scientists who’ve been awarded observing time on the telescope.

NASA’s performing chief historian, Brian Odom, is working with a non-agency historian to assessment archival paperwork about Webb’s insurance policies and actions, in line with company officers. Solely after the investigation concludes will NASA resolve what to do.

“We must make a conscious decision,” Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, instructed an company advisory committee on 29 June. “We must be transparent with the community and with the public for the rationale for whichever decision we make.”

Looking out the archives

Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe named the JWST after Webb in 2002, when the telescope was within the early phases of improvement. It was a unilateral choice that took many unexpectedly, as a result of NASA’s telescopes are sometimes named after scientists. Webb, who died in 1992, was a bureaucrat who held a number of administrative roles within the US authorities.

O’Keefe selected the title as a result of Webb had advocated that NASA preserve science as a key a part of its portfolio within the 1960s, even because the Apollo programme of human area exploration soaked up many of the company’s consideration and price range. O’Keefe tells Nature he was not conscious of the accusations when he picked the title, and he helps maintaining it until extra info surfaces. “Without James Webb’s leadership, there may have been no telescope or much of anything else at NASA noteworthy of a naming controversy,” he says.

As Webb was starting his profession with the US authorities within the late 1940s, homosexual and lesbian staff have been being systematically rooted out and fired due to their sexual orientation—a marketing campaign encouraged by several prominent members of Congress. The interval is named the lavender scare, echoing the anti-Communist ‘red scare’ with which it was typically intertwined. In the course of the lavender scare, homosexual individuals have been solid, untruthfully, as perverts who may be determined to maintain their sexual orientation secret and thus be vulnerable to revealing authorities secrets and techniques below blackmail. Its epicentre was the Division of State, which handles overseas coverage.

The 4 astronomers main the renaming petition say that when Webb labored for the state division within the high-ranking place of undersecretary from 1949 to 1952, he handed a set of memos discussing what was described as “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts” to a senator who was main the persecution. They level to information discovered within the US Nationwide Archives by astronomer Adrian Lucy at Columbia College in New York Metropolis. “The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material,” the petition leaders wrote earlier this year in an opinion piece in Scientific American.

The 4 astronomers are Lucianne Walkowicz on the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois; Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on the College of New Hampshire in Durham; Brian Nord on the Fermi Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois; and Sarah Tuttle on the College of Washington in Seattle. “We felt that we should take a public stand on naming such an important facility after someone whose values were so questionable,” they write in an e-mail to Nature. “It’s time for NASA to stand up and be on the right side of history.”

David Johnson, a historian on the College of South Florida in Tampa who wrote the 2004 e-book The Lavender Scare, says he is aware of of no proof that Webb led or instigated persecution. Webb did attend a White Home assembly on the risk allegedly posed by homosexual individuals, however the context of the assembly was to comprise the hysteria that members of Congress have been stirring up. “I don’t see him as having any sort of leadership role in the lavender scare,” says Johnson.

Walkowicz and their colleagues notice that as a pacesetter, Webb bore duty for discriminatory insurance policies enacted at his company. In addition they notice the case of Clifford Norton, who was fired from his job at NASA as a result of he was suspected to be homosexual in 1963, when Webb was NASA administrator. “We believe the known historical record speaks clearly in favour of renaming the telescope,” they are saying.

NASA has given no estimate of when its investigation may be full. Odom says that the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted historians’ entry to archival information.

A mirrored image of values

The push to rename the telescope falls into the broader reckoning over naming buildings, services and different objects after questionable historic figures. Final yr, an aerospace govt started an as-yet unsuccessful effort to rename a NASA centre in Mississippi that’s named after John Stennis, a senator who voted repeatedly in favour of racial segregation within the 1960s. Up to now yr or so, NASA has tried to handle previous discrimination in opposition to Black scientists and in opposition to ladies by naming its Washington DC headquarters after Mary Jackson, the primary Black feminine engineer on the company, and saying that the flagship area telescope after the JWST will likely be named after Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer.

The JWST debate comes close to the tip of an extended and exhausting push to launch the observatory into area. Initially conceived in 1989 because the successor to the enduring Hubble Area Telescope, the craft is a few years and billions of {dollars} over price range.

To some, the telescope’s potential to rework astronomy makes it much more vital that the JWST carry a reputation that displays trendy values. “For me, it really comes down to what kind of message we want to send to the more junior folks and students in our field,” says Peter Gao, a planetary scientist on the College of California, Santa Cruz. “The people we choose to celebrate by naming our telescopes after them is a reflection of our values.”

The ultimate choice lies with NASA administrator Invoice Nelson, who has not mentioned something publicly on the matter. There isn’t a clear checklist of other names, though many individuals have made unofficial ideas. Walkowicz and the opposite astronomers who’re main the petition counsel Harriet Tubman, after the previously enslaved lady who fought to finish slavery in america within the nineteenth century and used the celebs to information Black individuals to freedom. Saurabh Jha, an astronomer at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, suggests Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, whose work revolutionized astronomers’ understanding of the composition of the Universe within the early twentieth century.

Some astronomers who plan to make use of the JWST are already desirous about what they’ll do if the telescope will not be renamed. One thought is to acknowledge LGBT+ rights within the acknowledgements sections of papers printed utilizing JWST knowledge, says Johanna Teske, an astronomer on the Carnegie Establishment for Science in Washington DC.

Many are eager to see what the NASA investigation would possibly unearth. “It’s important to look at what happened and what the facts are,” says Rolf Danner, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who’s chair of the American Astronomical Society’s committee on sexual orientation and gender minorities in astronomy. “And then really ask ourselves—would we make that choice again?”

This text is reproduced with permission and was first published on July 23 2021.

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Alexandra Witze

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