NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez
The James Webb Space Telescope will remain the James Webb Space Telescope, despite criticism from some astronomers who refuse to name it.
They object to honoring the NASA official who led the agency at a time when the government persecuted LGBT workers. But after an exhaustive review of historical records, NASA now says it “found no evidence that Webb was a leader or advocate for firing government employees because of their sexual orientation.”
“Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” the agency said in a statement. statement Released on Friday, November 18th.
Space telescopes have traditionally been named after scientists, such as astronomer Edwin Hubble. But when NASA was designing and building what is now its flagship telescope, one official unilaterally decided to name the powerful instrument after James Webb, the accomplished commander who oversaw the Apollo program that sent astronauts to the moon.
Last year, before launching the $10 billion telescope into space, several astronomers wrote Article for Scientific American Calling for renaming this observatory. They argued that Webb’s leadership role during a time when the federal government was investigating and purging LGBT employees meant that it was necessary for him to be complicit.
Several astronomy researchers have signed a petition urging NASA to change the name, and some clearly refer to the telescope only by its initials. Even the American Astronomical Society remind Its members this month do not need to use the full name of the telescope when submitting scientific papers to the Society’s journals.
In 2021, NASA begins investigating records related to Webb’s time in government, but the coronavirus pandemic has restricted access to some archival collections.
“A very important part of this whole investigation was getting access to the records,” says Brian Odom, NASA’s chief historian. “Covid is a huge challenge for that.”
However, after an initial review, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement in September of last year saying that the telescope’s name would remain unchanged. At that time, some astronomers unhappy That NASA has not been more transparent about how officials reached this decision.
Now, NASA has publicly published a dossier Full report She describes her investigations of Webb’s time in government, at both the State Department and at NASA.
Odom and his colleagues reviewed more than 50,000 pages of documents covering the period from 1949 to 1969.
“I am satisfied that we did our due diligence, that we reviewed the records that we needed to go through,” he says.
Odom says this broad review revealed nothing about Webb’s own views on federal government employment policies, other than his intent to implement the policies established by his bosses. For example, Webb was deeply concerned about NASA centers’ compliance with new equal employment opportunity practices related to race and gender.
“We still really don’t know how he felt about any of those issues,” Odom says, saying that Webb’s main concern seems to be understanding the administration’s policies and putting them into practice while also achieving other priorities, such as going to the moon.
Homosexuality doesn’t just come out, Odom says, in Web Communications on Personnel Issues at NASA. He found no evidence that Webb was aware of the dismissal of Clifford J. .
The report also examines an episode during Webb’s tenure at the State Department, in 1950, when he met Senator Clyde Hoy, who led a congressional investigation of homosexuals in the federal government.
“Based on the available evidence, Webb’s principal involvement was in attempting to restrict congressional access to personnel records at the State Department,” states the new NASA report, adding that Webb appeared to pass along some material relating to homosexuality that had been submitted by another federal employee.
“None of the evidence found Webb’s links to actions arising from this discussion. Webb did not, in the aftermath of the June 28 meeting, follow up on the matter—whether via memos or correspondence,” says the NASA report.
Critics of the telescope’s name say NASA’s approach to the whole issue is sorely lacking. The four astronomers who wrote Scientific American The article sent NPR a joint statement saying that “NASA’s statement relies on a practice of selective historical reading: Where there is no piece of paper that explicitly says ‘James Webb knew about this,’ they assume that means he didn’t.”
Noting that “all the evidence points to suggesting that Webb persisted in positions of power precisely because he was so competent,” these astronomers say it’s possible Webb knew a great deal about security practices at his agency during the Cold War, when he was gay. It was seen as a national security risk.
“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving credit to Webb for the exciting things that happened under his command – activities that other people have already done – but to refuse to accept his responsibility for the problems,” they wrote.
They add that NASA’s position may be seen as indicating that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination that occur during their oversight.
Odom says he understands why people can have sentimental feelings about the telescope’s name, calling the persecution of gay government employees “a painful chapter in American history.”
“I am very familiar with how the past affects the present,” says Odom. “I understand why it means so much to people.” “But in the end, you know, we have to go where the evidence takes us.”
Even if there is no evidence that Webb led efforts to kick gay people out of government, Odom says, understanding this piece of history and the damage it has done to people’s lives is important as NASA moves forward and tries to have open conversations about diversity, equality, and inclusion. , and accessibility.
Odom says, “If we don’t make this past usable, we will fail to learn the lessons it can provide us and we will be even weaker for it.”
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