James Webb directed NASA in the 1950s and 60s, during the Cold War-era “Lavender Scare,” when government agencies often adopted policies that discriminated against government employees. For this reason, astronomers and others have been asking NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s alleged support and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This evening, NASA released a long-awaited report by the agency’s chief historian Brian Odom. In a subsequent press release, NASA officials made it clear that the agency will not change the name of the telescope, and wrote: “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not want to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” However, the report highlights that this period in federal law — and in American history more broadly — was a dark chapter that does not reflect what the agency is doing today.”
Odom was tasked with finding evidence, if any, linking Webb to policies and decisions related to same-sex couples. Tracking down 60 years of evidence made the subject difficult to study, Odom says, but he was able to get information from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. He said: “I felt that this research is very important.
This includes claims made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired in 1963 after being seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, his charges, and NASA security brought him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him overnight. Then he was fired.
Such treatment of government employees suspected of being gay was common at the time, following President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order, which listed “sexual harassment” among the types of suspected behavior. However, the NASA report says, “There is no evidence to suggest that Webb knew about Norton’s shooting at the time. Because the government approved the law, the shooting was justified, although, sadly, it was considered unusual.”
The report and NASA’s announcement upset critics who have for years made the case for changing the JWST’s name. “Webb has a very complicated legacy, including his participation in promoting psychological warfare. His actions did not earn him a $10 billion fortune,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astronomer at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicist m ‘s statement on Substack today. He doubts the interpretation that the lack of clear evidence means that Webb did not know about, or was involved in, the shooting within his agency, writing: “In that case, we have to think that he was incompetent as a leader: the manager. NASA needs to know if its security chief is questioning people without justice.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of the release — the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday — was no coincidence, a way to make the report less widely read. “What they did despite it being LGBT STEM Day tells you what the administration needs,” he wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA often names telescopes after famous astronomers, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is no exception. He led the agency as it advanced the lunar space program and promoted space exploration, but he was an executive, not an astronaut.
Although union officials have called to keep Webb’s name, Odom says, “We still have to use this record as an example of a past that hurt a lot of people. The past, whatever Webb’s involvement with it, is important to us moving forward.”
That NASA is choosing not to name the telescope “is not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and chairman of the American Astronomical Society’s committee on gender minorities in astronomy. Whether Webb knew about Norton’s treatment, or evidence of it, is irrelevant, Danner argues, since Webb represented the facts as a NASA administrator. “He is a misnomer for the future of astronomy.”