James Webb led NASA within the Nineteen Fifties and 60s, in the course of the “lavender panic” of the Chilly Conflict period, when authorities businesses typically enforced insurance policies that discriminated in opposition to homosexual and lesbian federal workers. Because of this, astronomers and others have lengthy referred to as for NASA to vary the title of the James Webb Area Telescope. Earlier this yr, the area company agreed to finish a full investigation into Webb’s alleged function within the conversion and firing of LGBTQ workers.
This afternoon, NASA launched the long-awaited report from the company’s chief historian, Brian Odom. In an accompanying press launch, NASA officers made it clear that the company wouldn’t change the title of the telescope, writing: “Primarily based on the proof obtainable, the company doesn’t plan to vary the title of the James Webb Area Telescope. Nevertheless, the report reveals that this era in federal politics—and in American historical past extra broadly—was a darkish chapter that doesn’t mirror the company’s values right this moment.”
Odom was tasked with discovering proof, if any, linking Webb to homophobic insurance policies and selections. Monitoring down proof of controversial occasions 60 years in the past has been a troublesome topic, Odom mentioned, however he was ready to attract on a wealth of fabric from the Nationwide Archives in School Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very severely,” he says.
Amongst these accusations are allegations made by NASA worker Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit alleging that he was fired in 1963 after being seen in a automotive with one other man. He was taken into police custody, his lawsuit says, and NASA safety subsequently took him to company headquarters and interrogated him in a single day. He was later fired from his job.
This therapy of federal workers suspected of being homosexual or lesbian was commonplace on the time, following President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 govt order itemizing “sexual perversions” among the many behaviors thought of suspicious. Nevertheless, the NASA report states, “No proof was discovered that Webb knew of Norton’s firing on the time. Since this was the commonly accepted coverage within the authorities, dismissal was very doubtless, though, sadly, it was not thought of one thing distinctive.
NASA’s report and assertion disappoints critics who’ve been attempting to vary the title of JWST for years. “Webb has a troublesome legacy at greatest, together with his involvement in selling psychological warfare. His work has not earned 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 Substack assertion right this moment. They query the interpretation that the shortage of clear proof implies that Webb was unaware of and didn’t lead the layoffs at his personal company, writing, “In such a situation, we should assume that he was comparatively incompetent as a frontrunner: the NASA administrator should know whether or not the top of safety interrogates him out of court docket.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this problem – the Friday afternoon earlier than Thanksgiving – will not be a coincidence, however a strategy to make the report much less readable. “The truth that they did this regardless of it being LGBT STEM Day speaks volumes to the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an e-mail to WIRED.
NASA often names telescopes after outstanding astronomers such because the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He ran the company whereas it promoted the moon touchdown area program and promoted astronomical analysis, however he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.
Regardless of company officers calling for Webb’s title to be retained, Odom says, “We nonetheless want to make use of this story for example of a previous that was traumatic for lots of people. That previous, no matter Webb’s function in it, is vital to us going ahead.”
NASA’s choice to not rename the telescope is “not shocking, however disappointing,” says Ralph Danner, an astronomer on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. Whether or not Webb knew about Norton’s therapy, or whether or not proof exists for it, will not be actually related, Danner argues, since Webb advocated for the coverage as a NASA administrator. “He is simply the flawed title to indicate the way forward for astronomy.”