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On December 24th 2021, NASA intends to launch the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), wherein it will begin its 5+ year mission to study galaxy, star and planet formation at infra-red wavelengths. While JWST is expected to revolutionise our understanding of high redshift galaxies in the early universe, and contextualise Earth within the diverse population of exoplanets, the telescope has not been without controversy. At the time of writing, over 1700 people have signed a petition calling for JWST to be renamed given evidence that James Webb was complicit, if not involved in discriminatory practices against LGBTQ+ people by the U.S. federal government and its agencies.
A Brief History of JWST
First conceived in 1989, the then Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) was renamed after James E. Webb in 2002, by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe after casual discussions with others at NASA. The choice was a break from tradition, as space telescopes are often named after prominent astronomers and physicists, typically via a formal review process (NASA’s four Great Observatories are named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (CXO), Arthur Compton (CGRO), Edwin Hubble (HST) and Lyman Spitzer (SST)).
Webb, however, was not a scientist. Serving as NASA administrator from 1961–1968, Webb was a bureaucrat who oversaw early crewed spacecraft missions, including the Mercury and Gemini projects, and dealt with the Apollo I fire. Prior to working at NASA, Webb had held several administrative roles within the U.S. government, including being second in rank at the U.S. State Department as Under Secretary of State from 1949–1952.
The Lavender Scare
This history is relevant because of the Lavender Scare, a period in U.S. post-war history during which LGBTQ+* government employees were subjected to a decades-long witch-hunt which led to thousands being fired or forced to resign from their positions. Unlike the better known Red Scare, policies that were a result of the Lavender Scare lasted well into the 1990s.
Allegations against James Webb first surfaced in two articles in 2015 and returned to the forefront in March 2021 following an opinion piece published in Scientific American, written by astronomers Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord.
Archival evidence shows that in 1950, as Under Secretary of State, Webb met with Senator Hoey to discuss a Senate committee that had been set up to investigate the employment of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. government. To prepare for this meeting, he received materials which included a background paper on “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts in the Department of State.” The Hoey Committee, as it became known, would go on to produce a report which concluded that members of the LGBTQ+ community were “unsuitable” for government employment because they were deemed “security risks.” Webb also met with then President Truman to discuss the Hoey Committee in 1953.
Furthermore, during Webb’s tenure as NASA administrator, NASA employee Clifford Norton was fired for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct” after being arrested and later interrogated at NASA on suspicion of homosexuality. Norton later sued for a review of his dismissal, a case that was ruled in his favour.
With the Scientific American article highlighting these concerns, and advocating for renaming the telescope, a petition soon followed in May 2021. Together, the article and petition argue that the name of a mission, particularly one this important, is a reflection of our values as both a scientific and global community. Webb’s complicit silence during his leadership roles at both the State Department and NASA do not align with those values.
While some consider Webb’s leadership during the space race era worthy of celebration and justification for naming a telescope after him, this leadership also means he was likely aware of the firing of Clifford Norton. Perhaps you may argue that the allegations against Webb will be typical of many others in positions of power in the era, given the attitudes of society at the time, but is it right to ignore something we feel to be wrong, just because it was commonplace?
As the petition gained signatures, in June NASA announced that both internal and external historians had been reviewing archival documents surrounding Webb’s policies and actions during the era. The investigation had begun in February, and in late September NASA’s current administrator released a single sentence to select members of the press stating that “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope”. The investigation was considered closed, despite access to non-digitalised documents being limited due to the pandemic, and to this date, no formal written report on the investigation has been produced.
NASA’s chief historian, Brain Odom, later clarified that during the investigation, historians had searched for evidence of actions taken by Webb which would show that he was more than an onlooker during an era of extreme homophobia, and found none. Odom also explained that should more evidence come to light, then it would be taken into consideration.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Many astronomers, including those with programs to use the telescope in its first year, are disappointed and angry with the lack of transparency with which the investigation was handled. One of the petition’s original signatories, Lucianne Walkowicz, resigned from NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee. Others feel that the decision is difficult to respect when they don’t know how it was reached.
No matter NASA’s decision, LGBTQ+ astronomers still face challenges that their cisgender and straight colleagues do not (check out our two-part series “Queer Astronomy”, and other LGBTQ+ beyond bites for in-depth discussions). The 2020 Decadal Survey highlights that recognising and supporting victims of identity-based discrimination, recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented groups, and creating diverse leaders who practice equity-advancing values should be fundamental goals for the astronomy community. If one of the most significant missions of the 2020s and beyond is named after someone whose wider legacy on these matters is at best complicated, and at worst enabling of a persistent culture of discrimination against LGBTQ+ astronomers, how well can we truly achieve these goals?
* I have used LGBTQ+ throughout this article to refer to those impacted by the Lavender Scare unless directly quoting from a historical source. While many articles about the Lavender Scare tend to use the more era-specific “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians,” the issues raised in this article have and continue to affect people from all corners of the LGBTQ+ community.
Astrobite edited by Macy Huston, Huei Sears, Haley Wahl
Featured image credit: Lili Alderson