Queer astronomer quits NASA over James Webb Telescope name

Queer astronomer quits NASA over James Webb Telescope name
(Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

Right off the bat, I wanted to make one thing perfectly clear about the title of this article. I’m not calling the scientist we’ll be discussing here a “queer astronomer.” That’s how she chose to describe herself. I’m old enough to remember when using the Q word about anyone was considered to be very insulting and in bad form. But that’s apparently changed in the modern era and they even worked the word into the widely touted LGBQ acronym.

With that out of the way, I will remind you of when we first looked at this story a couple of weeks ago. NASA is preparing to launch the revolutionary James Webb Telescope in December and if the launch is successful it’s expected to completely revolutionize our hunt for exoplanets in our galaxy. But not everyone is happy with this development. A group of activists, including a few astronomers at NASA, launched a petition calling on the agency to rename the spacecraft. They claim that Webb’s tenure as both the Director of NASA and as Undersecretary of State under Harry Truman was marred by government policies of the period that resulted in federal employees who were “suspected of being gay” being fired or otherwise discriminated against.

The current NASA director launched an investigation but could find no evidence suggesting that Webb was actually directly involved in any of those actions. As such, he declined to rename the project. Now, as a result of that decision, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, who “identifies as nonbinary,” has resigned from her position as an adviser for the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, or APAC. (The Hill)

An adviser for NASA wrote an open letter on Tuesday on why they decided to quit after a request to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope was denied by the agency.

Lucianne Walkowicz, who is nonbinary, wrote that they were resigning “because NASA’s handling of the questions regarding James Webb as a choice for naming its next flagship mission has made a farce of this [NASA Astrophysics Advisory] committee.”

The letter was also sent to NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee.

You can read Walkowicz’s full letter here. And just to reinforce the point I made at the top of this article in case anyone is bothered by my use of the Q word, she uses it three times in that letter. That includes the phrase, “I am not the first queer person to be actively discouraged from NASA service…”

While it’s almost certainly unintentional, Walkowicz actually does a good job of pointing out how thorough the investigation launched by NASA Director Bill Nelson did when these concerns were first raised. She points out that APAC had been asking for updates into the investigation into the naming of the telescope “for the past year.” This obviously wasn’t a decision that Nelson took lightly, as we discussed here previously. He enlisted the help of NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom and they combed through all of the documents they could find about Webb’s tenure at NASA and about the one NASA employee who was fired. They found no direct connection between the two.

In the interest of being fair to Walkowicz, it does sound like Nelson didn’t release any sort of lengthy summation of the findings of his investigation. Or if he did, it didn’t reach her desk. He probably should have done a more thorough job of documenting everything they found (and didn’t find) and adding that to the agency’s archive of historical data. But failing to show all of your work isn’t the same thing as lying about your findings by a long shot. Neither Walkowicz nor her colleagues have as yet offered up any contrary historical information demonstrating that Webb was actively chasing gay and lesbian employees out of NASA.

Reading more deeply into the letter, however, we get a bit of a look into the thought processes behind these objections. This doesn’t seem like as much of an objection to the invocation of James Webb’s name as it does a complaint about the general lack of wokeness at NASA. She rails against Bill Nelson at length, charging him will all manner of social justice thought crimes. These include being “an uninspiring choice to begin with” who had remained “on the fence about climate change” until 2018. Nelson also “didn’t stop opposing gay marriage” until 2013.

Never mind for the moment that there is still a robust debate taking place over both the scope and full range of causes of climate change today. And let’s put aside the fact that Nelson “came around” to the idea of gay marriage before a lot of people and did so during the same period when Barack Obama did. (Obama had previously run for office supporting only civil unions.) What really seems to be eating at Walkowicz’s craw isn’t just that her demand for a name change without providing a shred of evidence supporting her contention was denied. It’s not difficult to get the feeling that’s particularly cheesed off at the idea of her demand being denied by a straight, white, cisgender male.

The letter goes on to paint NASA with a very broad brush. She talks of the agency’s “participation in systematic oppression.” She also describes it as a place where “straight people’s opinions are valued and taken more seriously than queer people’s experiences.” But yet again, no other examples are offered. As a counter to that, I would remind everyone that Walkowicz is very openly “nonbinary” and “queer” by her own descriptions. And yet NASA apparently had no problem whatsoever appointing her to one of their most prestigious committees. She also notes in her letter that there are “plenty” of other “queer” people working at NASA. If the agency is so discriminatory, how did all of you get jobs?

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Jazz Shaw 5:31 PM on February 04, 2023