Activists are still trying to change the name of the new space telescope

Activists are still trying to change the name of the new space telescope
(Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

Back in October, we looked at the supposed controversy over the name of the new James Webb Space Telescope. LGBT groups were demanding the name be changed because of anti-gay policies in place at NASA during the period when Webb ran the agency. NASA looked into the allegations and found nothing of substance directly related to Webb himself, so they declined to change the name. This led one self-described queer astronomer to grow so frustrated that she resigned her position. That seemed to be the end of the controversy, but that wasn’t the case. (It’s apparently okay to say “queer” now. I honestly can’t keep up with all of the banned and allowed speech these days.) The protests have continued to this day and now supposed “new information” has been released pointing to the allegations made by the activists, suggesting that Webb actually was involved in the persecution of gay and lesbian NASA employees. So activists are renewing their calls for the name to be changed even though the telescope is already on station and performing its mission.

Since early last year, four researchers have been leading the charge for NASA to alter the name of the $10-billion flagship mission, launched in December 2021, which will provide unparalleled views of the universe. The e-mails make clear that, behind the scenes, NASA was well aware of Webb’s problematic legacy even as the agency’s leadership declined to take his name off the project.

“Reading through the exchanges, it seems that LGBTQ+ scientists and the concern we raised are not really what they care about,” says Yao-Yuan Mao of Rutgers University, who maintains the online Astronomy and Astrophysics Outlist of openly LGBTQ+ researchers.

“It’s almost amusing how incompetent the whole thing was,” says Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at the Ohio State University, “and how little they stopped to think of how important an issue this was to the queer astronomical community and how important NASA is for young queer kids trying to find aspirational reasons to just keep going.”

The “new information” that all of this is based on was published at Nature last month. They submitted a FOIA request for NASA emails from the period when they were investigating the allegations. Virtually none of it reveals any new information suggesting that Webb was personally involved with the “lavender scare,” as it’s called. (A period when the government regularly fired people if they believed they were homosexual.)

The only new item of potential interest was a record of Webb having attended a meeting with President Harry Truman in June of 1950 where there was allegedly a discussion of how agencies might ‘work together on the homosexual investigation.’ (That was before Webb took over NASA and was a deputy at the State Department.) There is no further suggestion as to whether or not Webb was ever involved in any such investigations.

The accusers once again brought up the case of an astronomer who was fired from NASA in the 60s (when Webb was in charge) for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct,” because he was alleged to be gay. He later appealed his case and some court records exist to support that the firing actually happened. But they only recount a conversation that the astronomer had with an unnamed person in the personnel office. Again, there is no suggestion that the Director of NASA even knew this was going on, to say nothing of being directly involved with it.

There was definitely an anti-gay bias in the government in the fifties and sixties, just as there was in much of the private sector. But in 2022, you apparently only had to be in some position of authority during that time period to be labeled as an oppressor of gay and lesbian workers or some sort of demon. If they really want to bring the hammer down on someone who seems to have been directly involved, why not go after Truman? God only knows how many things are still named after him. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be feeding them any ideas.

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