Documents reveal NASA’s internal struggles over renaming of the Webb Telescope


Shown here packed for shipment to the launch site last year, the James Webb Space Telescope was designed to explore the early universe.Credit: Chris Gunn/NASA

Internal NASA Documents Obtained nature Reveals new details about Agency investigation last year to whether to rename the pioneering James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). A group of astronomers led a community petition to change the name, alleging that the telescope of the same name, former NASA chief James Webb, was complicit in the persecution and dismissal of gay and lesbian federal employees during his career in the US government in the 1950s. and 1960.

in September, NASA announced that it will not change the name From the telescope, because it has no evidence to support the claims. But the controversial agency did not release a report summarizing its investigation or decision-making.

Internal Documents Obtained nature Others through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests show that, in making its decision, the agency was aware of a 1969 appeal ruling indicating that it was customary at NASA to separate people on suspicion of their sexual orientation. The case concerned a former NASA employee who was fired in 1963 because supervisors thought he was gay. This was when Webb was leading the agency.

NASA’s acting chief historian Brian Odom says he has not found any information in the NASA archives that indicates that expelling people because of their sexual orientation was agency policy under Webb. He and the contract historian, who has not been identified, will visit other historical archives soon to further look into Webb’s history. These archives have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but will be open again in the next few weeks. Odom says he will share information about what historians have found with the astronomy community.

But the new FOI documents shed light on how NASA has looked into the matter so far. The email correspondence “paints a stark picture of how astronomers outside the LGBTQ+ community reject the experiences of their gay colleagues, and makes it clear that discrimination against gay people still exists and is healthy in astronomy today,” say the four astronomers who led the community petition. They are Lucian Woukekes at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire at Durham; Brian Nord at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois; and Sarah Tuttle at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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influential agency

Webb ran NASA between 1961 and 1968, when the Apollo program to send astronauts to the Moon was in its heyday. He died in 1992. Another former NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, named the telescope after Webb in 2002 in recognition of his leadership in government and his commitment to making science an essential part of the agency. “We wouldn’t have gotten to the moon when we did in 1969 if it wasn’t for his leadership,” says Barbara Webb, James Webb’s son-in-law. “And the telescope is a wonderful instrument, and the greatest scientific and engineering instrument ever created—so appropriate that it is named after it.”

Barbara Webb says her family does not believe James Webb discriminated against anyone. “I don’t think saying he’s a bigot is by any means accurate,” she says. “He was more honest than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Some astronomers have argued that regardless of Webb’s personal beliefs, the telescope should have been renamed because it was a high-ranking official – and thus had an impact – at a time when the US federal government systematically identified and dismissed employees over suspicions of homosexuality. This historical period, known as the Lavender Scare, began at the US State Department around 1950, when Webb was the second official there.

Space director James E.  Webb before the Senate Space Committee.

James Webb was head of NASA from 1961 to 1968.Credit: Bettmann/Getty

Relationships controversy Broader conversations On the implications of naming buildings, spacecraft, and other things after people or concepts that have a complex history. Launched in DecemberThe US$10 billion JWST is a historic observatory supported by NASA, as well as the European and Canadian space agencies. The telescope, which is expected to make its first scientific observations no later than June, is designed for A peer to galaxies near the dawn of history and explore other cosmic frontiers. Its name will dominate astronomical publications for years to come.

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Current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has chosen to keep the name. He did not make any other statements.

worrying results

The new FOI documents are just a partial glimpse into NASA’s decision-making process (see PDF in Supplementary Information below; nature In addition to redacted details of a former intern at NASA to preserve person’s privacy). It includes some correspondence between NASA employees about the agency’s investigation of Webb from January 1 to October 13 last year. nature She made her request because the agency released few details about her decision in September.

Although the documents reveal that key decisions were made in meetings rather than via email, they still show agency officials wrestling with how to investigate the allegations and control public messaging about the controversy. As early as April 2021, an outside researcher flagged a version of a 1969 court ruling to NASA officials. This was stated in the case of Clifford Norton, who appealed his expulsion from NASA for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct.” In the decision, the chief justice wrote that the person who fired Norton said he was a good employee and asked if there was a way to keep him in business. Whoever consulted him in the personnel office told him that it was “a custom within the agency” to fire people for “homosexual behaviour”.

“I think you’ll find this paragraph disturbing,” the external researcher wrote to Eric Smith, a JWST program scientist at NASA in Washington, DC. “The phrase ‘custom within the agency’ sounds really bad.”

“This shows that NASA has decided that excluding homosexual employees would be its policy. They had a choice during Webb’s tenure as administrator to set or change this policy,” says the white paper prepared within NASA, which was described as not intended for public release.

Also in April, emails showed, Paul Hertz, chief of NASA’s astrophysics division, contacted more than a dozen members of the astrophysics community asking for their views on a possible name change for the telescope. “No one said they would be disappointed if we didn’t change the name,” Hertz wrote to his manager. However, none of them were known members of the LGBT+ community, Hertz wrote.

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When asked about this before natureHertz said he has had many conversations about the issue with “members from many communities, including from LGBTQ+”.

There is no justification

In October, after NASA announced that it would not rename the telescope, Hertz summed up the community’s reaction in an email to another NASA employee: “The problem for most of the astrophysics community is not the decision itself, but the lack of rationale to explain why that is the decision.” (For some people, the problem is the decision.)” He also noted that NASA did not communicate the decision widely, but rather emailed Nelson’s one-sentence statement to a small group of news outlets, including nature. “This is not the kind of transparent process that gives the outside community confidence,” he wrote.

Walkowicz and their colleagues go much further. “This is a disservice from a community in which we have devoted so much time and are excited about it,” they say.

In November, the Astrophysical Advisory Committee, a group of independent researchers that advises NASA, He asked Hertz for a written report on NASA’s decision. “The rationale and interpretation provided by the agency was wholly inadequate, opaque, and non-informational in relation to the nomenclature decision communicated to the astronomical community and other stakeholders in connection with the James Webb Space Telescope,” the panel wrote. She has not yet received such a report.

On its website and elsewhere, NASA states that it supports diversity, equality, inclusion, and accessibility. “NASA is fully committed to fully engaging and empowering a broad range of people, organizations, capabilities, and assets because we know this best enables us to reach everyone and everything we need to best accomplish our missions.” Policy States.

The disclosure of NASA’s decision on the JWST comes at a time of growing concern about the way the agency deals with identity issues. Earlier this month, staff at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, They were told that they would no longer be able to include pronouns, such as she/he or they/them, in their display names in the agency’s computer systems. After the move was discussed on Reddit and the astronomy community reacted negatively on other social platforms, NASA released a statement Employees can continue To include pronouns in their email signature blocks.

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