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Astronomy and space

NASA hit by resignation over its handling of investigation into telescope renaming

12 Oct 2021 Michael Banks
James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to be launched in December. (Courtesy: Northrop Grumman)

A member of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee has resigned over the agency’s handling of an investigation into whether the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be renamed. The probe was instigated in the wake of concerns that Webb – a former NASA administrator – had been involved in mistreating gay and lesbian people in the 1950s and 1960s. NASA announced in September, however, that it would not be changing the name of the JWST, revealing the news via a single-sentence statement that was released only to certain media outlets.

That decision angered some astronomers particularly because the agency had said it would be fully transparent in releasing the results of the investigation. In response, Lucianne Walkowicz from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who is also a co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, has now announced they are resigning with immediate effect from the committee over its handling of the affair. The JWST is due to be launched in December.

Regarded as a successor to NASA’s Hubble telescope, the JWST was originally known as the Next Generation Space Telescope. In 2002 the then NASA boss Sean O’Keefe renamed the telescope in honour of Webb, who had served as NASA administrator during the Apollo era. A bureaucrat rather than a scientist, Webb had served in various US government roles since the 1940s.

Earlier this year, however, more than 1200 people signed an open letter calling on NASA to rename the JWST, claiming that Webb was involved in anti-LGBT+ activities before taking up the role at NASA. The letter was initiated by Walkowicz as well as Chanda Prescod-Weinstein from the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord from Fermilab and the University of Chicago as well as Sarah Tuttle from the University of Washington.

“Webb served as the undersecretary of state during the purge of queer people from government service known as the ‘Lavender Scare’,” the authors stated. They added that archival evidence “clearly indicated that Webb was in high-level conversations regarding the creation of this policy and resulting actions”.

The authors also noted that Webb was in charge of NASA when Clifford Norton – a budget analyst at the agency – was sacked in 1963 on suspicion of homosexuality. “We, the future users of NASA’s next-generation space telescope and those who will inherit its legacy, demand that this telescope be given a name worthy of its remarkable discoveries, a name that stands for a future in which we are all free,” the authors wrote.

Lack of transparency

In June, NASA said it would begin an internal investigation, which would examine historical documents and interview historians who had studied Webb. While officials at NASA said the agency would be “transparent” with the decision, on 27 September NASA administrator Bill Nelson issued a single-sentence statement to selected journalists stating: “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The news angered astronomers. “What I hear as a queer scientist and a member of multiple NASA collaborations is, ‘The homophobic terror that Clifford L Norton was subjected to doesn’t matter’,” noted Prescod-Weinstein on Twitter. “I find NASA’s single sentence statement about the evidence to be gaslighting, constituted by the sin of omission, and most troublingly, unsupported and thus unscientific. They do not make the case for their claim in light of the publicly available evidence.”

The news also surprised many who sit on NASA advisory committees, who said they only learned of the news from press reports. In an open letter announcing their resignation from the 12-strong committee, Walkowicz criticized NASA’s lack of transparency and called NASA’s response “flippant” and “pathetic”.

“After the past year and a half we’ve had with not only the pandemic, but also national grappling with issues of racism and human rights, it boggles the mind that NASA has so little insight into its own participation in systematic oppression,” Walkowicz writes. “I’m not the first and won’t be the last driven out of a NASA space, where evidently straight people’s opinions are valued and taken more seriously than queer people’s experiences.”

Prescod-Weinstein adds that the logic behind naming the telescope after Webb is that he is responsible for NASA’s successes during the Apollo era. “At the same time, NASA says he is not responsible for the homophobia that occurred at NASA,” says Prescod-Weinstein. “How is he responsible for all of NASA’s successes during his time as administrator but none of its failures? Real people were harmed by those failures. That matters.”

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