NASA is set to unveil the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ending a campaign from astronomers and other activists who claimed that James Webb, the telescope’s namesake “persecuted” LBGT individuals in his employ while he was NASA’s administrator in the 1950s and 1960s — claims that NASA found were without merit.
“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 reported.
“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,” the group claimed, per the outlet. “For instance, he was NASA administrator when an agency employee was fired in 1963 on suspicion of being gay.”
NASA, which recently launched an ad campaign that was so tailored toward progressive sentiment that it was labeled “critical space theory,” according to the New York Post, reportedly took the comments to heart and launched an internal investigation that, NASA says, found no evidence that would require the agency to change the JWST’s name.
NASA appeared to spare no expense on the investigation, either, and it reportedly included “several archivists going through NASA’s internal records, interviewing other historians who had studied Webb, and hiring an external historian to explore aspects such as Webb’s career at other government agencies.” They did not examine records that weren’t digitized, but largely because libraries were restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Queer scientists,” though, say they’re disappointed NASA did not take them at their word and simply rename the telescope.
“The gut-punch is in the outright refusal to hear the voices of queer astronomers,” one astrophysicist who spoke to Nature said. “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?”
“For all the institution’s talk of equity and diversity, they don’t seem to be particularly concerned with public accountability about sensitive issues that have impacted a historically marginalized group,” the petition’s authors told the magazine.
It does not appear that the petitioners, including the four leaders who initially accused Webb of wrongdoing, presented any evidence that Webb was intentionally discriminatory against LGBT individuals — only that, in the 1960s, most federal agencies weren’t particularly welcome to gay and lesbian scientists and engineers.
Instead, they offered some circumstantial evidence about NASA itself.
“At the heart of the controversy is what responsibility government officials bear for discriminatory actions and policies at agencies they headed,” Nature reported. “Webb ran NASA between 1961 and 1968, during the height of the exploration programs that eventually sent astronauts to walk on the Moon. Critics point out that Webb was therefore in charge in 1963, when Clifford Norton, a suspected gay employee, was fired.”
As for whether Webb was at all responsible for firing Norton, a NASA investigator said that evidence connecting Webb to the matter “just didn’t turn up.”
The JWST is set to be unveiled later this year.