The James Webb Space Telescope will keep its name, NASA says

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NASA will not rename the James Webb Space Telescope after calls from critics, the agency said Thursday. The agency said an investigation found no evidence that Webb, a former NASA administrator, was involved in promoting anti-LGBTQ policies during his time in the federal government.

The agency launched the investigation into Webb’s story in March 2021 after a group of scientists writing in Scientific American criticized the telescope’s name and started a petition calling for the agency to change it. Critics of Webb have argued that he was complicit in the US government’s Cold War-era campaign to discriminate against and fire gay federal employees.

The agency said it sought “all available evidence” linking Webb to the “Lavender Scare,” when thousands of gay federal employees were forced out of their jobs from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Through historical records, NASA historians attempted to answer whether Webb was responsible for anti-gay policies, involved in layoffs, or otherwise associated with discrimination, and found that he was not, the agency said.

“The purpose of this investigation was to go where the evidence was taking us, see what evidence was out there… and come to a conclusion,” NASA chief historian Brian Odom said in an interview with the Washington Post . “Knowing this history will help us move forward as an organization — not just an organization, but a country — that learns from its past.”

The findings were presented in an 88-page report released Thursday, which NASA said came from a review of more than 50,000 pages of government archives by its historians. Critics questioned the report, with some saying it was “selective historical reading”.

NASA’s James Webb Telescope will explore the universe. Critics say his name symbolizes a painful time in US history.

The powerful deep-space telescope, which was launched on December 25 last year, was named after Webb because, according to the agency, he ensured that NASA pursued not only human spaceflight but also space exploration.

Now orbiting the sun, the telescope will study the first galaxies after the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planetary systems, and the evolution of the solar system. It has captured galaxies, nebulae and other images of the distant Universe.

Webb was NASA Administrator from 1961 to 1968 when the agency launched the Apollo missions that would put the first man on the moon. Webb supported the idea of ​​a large space telescope and oversaw investments in the development of scientific probes that, according to NASA, gave the United States the first glimpses of space on Mars and Venus.

He also worked at the State Department from 1949 to 1952, when the federal government began expelling gay workers. A 1953 executive order issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower made it the policy of all federal agencies to identify and fire federal employees who were gay for “security reasons,” a policy that continued through 1975, according to the NASA report.

Webb’s critics say his role as federal leader at a time when LGBTQ people are being removed from the government workforce makes him complicit in the persecution — and means the telescope’s name conjures up a damaging chapter in US history.

On Thursday, the scientists who wrote the Scientific American article — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Brian Nord, Sarah Tuttle and Luciane Walkowicz — criticized NASA’s approach and said they planned to study the report.

As an administrator, they said in a statement Thursday, Webb would have known what was going on at his agency. The lack of “a piece of paper that specifically says ‘James Webb knew about this'” doesn’t prove he didn’t know, they said.

“It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership – activities that were actually done by other people – but refuse to accept his blame for the problems.” “, write. “NASA is engaged in historical cherry picking, which we believe is profoundly unscientific.”

The four also argued that the report’s methodology and findings imply that managers are not accountable for discrimination that occurs during their tenure, “an explicit anti-justice, diversity and inclusion attitude that places responsibilities on the most marginalized.” forced to take care of ourselves”.

In a statement announcing the report’s release, NASA said understanding the story would help guide the agency in its work to ensure equal opportunities for its employees and “full equality for LGBTQI+ Americans.” to advance”.

“The report illuminates that this period in federal politics — and in American history more broadly — was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values ​​today,” the statement said.

NASA releases first images from the James Webb Telescope

Broadly speaking, NASA historians have been trying to understand whether Webb was an advocate of keeping gay people out of the workforce and whether he oversaw the enforcement of that policy, Odom said. They also focused on specific incidents that Webb may have linked to knowledge of or assistance with the shooting, which Odom said he was particularly interested in investigating but found no major findings.

Because the guideline was the standard across the federal government at the time — although “we’re looking at [it] today and it’s a despicable policy” — meaning layoffs were likely considered routine and would not have reached the administrator’s desk, Odom said.

“This is a moment we can learn a lot from, at this time in history. … It’s an important issue that we shouldn’t forget,” Odom said. “I just want people to know that this was done in the most objective way possible.”

Keeping the name, Webb’s critics have argued, sends the wrong message.

“Discrimination against queer people, including scientists, still impacts their lives and careers,” the four scientists wrote in 2021. “So what a signal it sends to current and future generations of scientists when we share the legacy of complicity Put government officials above dreams? of the next generation?”

Odom, who spent months trawling through material in various federal archives, said he understood people’s reactions.

“Ultimately, as a historian, I have to resort to evidence,” he said. “I understand why people feel the way they do. These things are serious. They have real consequences. The past is never complete; In fact, it’s hardly ever over.”

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