Activists wanted NASA to rename their new telescope for social justice reasons. NASA passed

(Laura Betz/NASA via AP)

In December, NASA is scheduled to launch the new James Webb Space Telescope into orbit on an Ariane 5 rocket. If you have even a passing interest in science and astronomy, you have to be very excited about this development. The ten billion dollar, 14 thousand pound behemoth is projected to put the results gained by the Hubble telescope to shame. It will peer deeply into the universe across a wide range of frequencies, including infrared. Using new filtering technology, the instrument is supposed to be able to filter out the bright light of distant stars, allowing us our first direct look at exoplanets circling them, perhaps even offering details of their atmospheres and potentially signs of alien life. It’s an extremely exciting time.

But not everyone is happy about this event. A small group of astronomers and a significantly larger collection of social justice activists have been demanding that NASA change the name of the project. James Webb was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and a successful businessman who went on to become the Undersecretary of State under Harry Truman and the second Director of NASA under Kennedy and Johnson. He oversaw NASA’s growth and shepherded the Gemini and Appolo programs, preparing the agency for the first moon landing which took place roughly a year after he finished his time at NASA. But the activists demanding the name of the telescope be changed aren’t concerned with any of that. They claim that Webb “was involved in persecuting gay and lesbian people in the 1950s and 1960s.” (Nature)

NASA has decided not to rename its soon-to-be-launched flagship observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), after investigating whether its namesake, former NASA administrator James Webb, was involved in persecuting gay and lesbian people in the 1950s and 1960s. The agency says it found no evidence to support the allegations.

The decision and the lack of transparency with which it was announced — NASA released no report about the scope of the investigation — has angered a number of astronomers.

“I’m disappointed,” says Johanna Teske, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC. “Without knowing what factors were considered, it’s hard for me to respect the decision to keep the current name.”

To their credit, when activists started a petition demanding the name change, NASA launched an investigation headed by Administrator Bill Nelson and acting chief historian Brian Odom. They spent months going through the historical records, finally concluding in September that there was no evidence to justify changing the name on this basis.

One of the four astronomers who originally organized the petition described the decision as a “gut punch” and “the outright refusal to hear the voices of queer astronomers.” The problem is, none of them have produced a single shred of evidence to indicate that Webb was ever directly involved with the persecution of anyone, gay or otherwise. They’ve managed to cite one specific instance where a NASA employee was fired in 1963 after he was “suspected of being gay.” But that guy was well down the food chain at the agency and Webb was the Director. Are we really supposed to believe that he was that deeply involved in every Human Resources decision made at the agency or that he spent his time personally hunting down gays and lesbians throughout the organization to terminate them?

The activists also point to his time as Undersecretary of State, “when firing gay people was seen as acceptable and even encouraged.” But again, they point to no specific instances of any individuals at the State Department being fired for being gay, to say nothing of showing that Webb was somehow directly involved if they were. Nelson and Odom both said they scoured the archives looking for any sort of reference showing Webb being directly involved in the NASA firing in 1963, “but it just wasn’t there.” Perhaps something will eventually show up in other records from the era that might prove the allegations about Webb true in that context. If so, we can revisit the question. But at least for now, there is no there there.

What this really sounds like is yet another case of activists trying to blame everyone from history that’s perceived as being a “cisgender straight white male” for the assumed sins of an entire generation. (I’ll confess that I know nothing at all about James Webb’s sexual orientation or ideas on gender identity, and frankly, I can’t be bothered to go look.) All it takes is for some historical figure to have been in charge of – or even simply involved in – an organization or activity in the past that is seen as being insufficiently woke by today’s standards and their statues must be torn down. Or, in this case, their name to be scrubbed from one of the greatest advancements ever seen in an agency that they helped develop and set on a path toward the future. Thankfully, Bill Nelson has a bit more sense than that and was willing to put in the research work before simply bowing to the mob and agreeing to their demands.