James Webb directed NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, during the Lavender Scare of the Cold War, when government agencies often had discriminatory policies against gay and lesbian federal workers. For this reason, astronomers and others have long called on NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to conduct a full investigation into Webb’s alleged role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This afternoon, NASA released the long-awaited report by the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made it clear that the agency would not be changing the telescope’s name, writing, “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name. of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report highlights that this period in federal politics — and more broadly in American history — was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.
Odom has been tasked with finding what evidence, if any, connects Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Finding evidence of 60-year-old contentious events has been a difficult subject of study, Odom says, but he was able to draw on numerous documents from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he said.
These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired in 1963 after he was seen in a car with another man. He was taken into custody, according to his lawsuit, and NASA security then brought him to agency headquarters and questioned him overnight. He was later fired from his job.
Such treatment of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian was commonplace at the time, following a 1953 executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower that listed “sexual perversion” among the types of behavior considered suspects. Yet the NASA report states, “No evidence has been found showing that Webb was aware of Norton’s shooting at the time. Because it was an accepted government-wide policy, the dismissal was, most likely, but unfortunately, considered not exceptional.
NASA’s report and announcement frustrates critics who have for years argued in favor of renaming the JWST. “Webb has a complicated legacy at best, including his involvement in promoting psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists wrote in a statement on Substack today. They challenge the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb had no knowledge of the layoffs within his own agency, or passed them on, writing: “In such a scenario, we must assume that he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the NASA administrator should know if his security chief is extrajudicially interviewing people.
Prescod-Weinstein thinks the timing of this release – the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday – is no coincidence, a way to make the report less read. “The fact that they did this even though it’s LGBT STEM Day tells you about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He led the agency as it pushed the space program toward the moon landing and promoted astronomy research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.
Even though agency officials have called for keeping Webb’s name, Odom says, “We should always use this story as an example of a past that was traumatic for a lot of people. That past, whatever Webb’s role in it, is important to us going forward.
That NASA chose not to rename the telescope is “not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer and co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s committee on sexual orientation and gender minorities. in astronomy. Whether Webb knew about Norton’s treatment, or whether there is evidence of it, is irrelevant, Danner argues, since Webb championed those policies as a NASA administrator. “He’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”
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