The Webb Telescope’s Latest Stumbling Block: Its Name


Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator who named the telescope in 2002, said in an email that Webb was “a champion of education, technology, science, aeronautics and human exploration.”

“Arguably, were it not for James Webb’s determination to fulfill the most audacious vision of his time, our capacity to explore today would be starkly different,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “He introduced complex systems management — a discipline to harness the exceptional technical capability of NASA at that time.” Mr. O’Keefe added that he was unaware of any evidence that Webb was responsible for the Lavender Scare.

In May, NASA promised a full investigation by its acting chief historian, Brian Odom. On Sept. 27, the agency issued a statement from the current NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, saying, “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” Since then, no extensive report has been forthcoming.

This has infuriated many astronomers, and some 1,200 have signed a petition calling for the telescope to be renamed. “Under Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted,” the petition reads, in part. “Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo.”

On hearing Mr. Nelson’s announcement, Dr. Walkowicz abruptly resigned their post on the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee. “This flippant, pathetic response to the very reasonable questions raised by the astronomical community regarding JWST’s name sends a clear message of NASA’s position on the rights of queer astronomers,” they wrote in an online statement. “It also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time.”

In an email, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said she was frustrated at the lack of promised transparency. Moreover, she said, the claim of “no evidence” was too strong, as it suggested that Webb was not responsible for the homophobia — well-documented — that his team promulgated during his tenure at NASA.

“If he’s not responsible for the bad stuff that happened while he was in charge, why is he responsible for the good stuff?” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said. “It seems there’s a bit of double-think happening here, where people assign him responsibility for the things they like about his legacy and pretend that he’s only responsible for the things they like.”



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