NASA confirms decision to keep JWST name after historical report

WASHINGTON — NASA says a historical review of actions by former administrator James Webb confirmed its decision to keep the agency’s flagship space telescope named after him.

NASA released an 89-page report Nov. 18 from the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom, assessing allegations that Webb was directly involved, first at the State Department and later at NASA, in firing employees based on of their sexual orientation. Those allegations had led many astronomers to call on NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope.

The study, Odom concluded, found no evidence to support those claims. “In conclusion, to date there is no available evidence directly associating Webb with any action or follow-up regarding the firing of individuals because of their sexual orientation,” he stated in the report.

NASA said in October 2021 that its initial review of the historical record found no evidence to support claims Webb had fired LGBTQ+ employees. At the time, however, NASA did not provide a detailed report supporting that conclusion. Astronomers, including the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, have urged NASA to release a report, a process that has been delayed due to historical archives only recently reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report investigated two specific allegations. One was that Webb, as Deputy Under Secretary of State in 1950, approved the firing of LGBTQ+ State Department employees during the “Lavender Scare.” The historical record, Odom concluded, showed that Webb was primarily concerned with limiting access to State Department personnel files from congressional investigations.

The other was in 1963, when Webb was a NASA administrator. A bureau budget analyst, Clifford Norton, was arrested and later fired for his sexual orientation. Norton later sued the Civil Service Commission, a case that helped overturn civil service policies that allowed such layoffs.

Odom concluded that Webb was probably unaware of the Norton case. “Because it was accepted by the entire government, the resignation was most likely – though unfortunately – considered normal,” he said in the report.

The report’s conclusions, NASA said in the statement, confirmed its earlier decision not to rename JWST. “Based on the available evidence, the agency has no plans to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

However, both the report and statement condemn past discrimination. “For decades, discrimination against LGBTQI+ federal employees was not just tolerated, it was shamefully promoted by federal policy. The Lavender Scare that took place after World War II is a painful part of the American story and the fight for LGBTQI+ rights,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement.

It seemed unlikely that the report’s conclusions would be accepted by at least some astronomers who criticized naming JWST after James Webb. In a Nov. 18 statement, four astronomers who led the effort to rename JWST — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Lucianne Walkowicz, Sarah Tuttle and Brian Nord — said they had not yet read the report but felt it was too limited. focused on those specific cases. .

The report, they wrote, “seems to answer the question, ‘Is there definitive physical evidence that James Webb knew about Clifford Norton and his case?’ That’s a different question than, ‘Was James Webb, as administrator, responsible for the activities of the agency he led?’” They said they find it hard to believe that Webb, as NASA administrator, was unaware of the Clifford’s resignation.

“Ultimately, Webb has a complicated legacy at best,” they concluded. “His activities have not earned him a $10 billion monument.”

It’s not clear what next steps are for those opposed to naming JWST after Webb. In October, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the United Kingdom announced that authors submitting articles to its journals would be asked to refer to the telescope only as JWST and not spell it, as required for other acronyms. That policy would be in effect, the RAS said, until the results of the landmark study are published.

Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the RAS, told SpaceNews on Nov. 19 that he planned to bring the report to the attention of the organization’s board of directors at its next meeting on Dec. 9.

However, there were few signs that criticism of JWST’s name extended beyond the astronomical community. The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee held a hearing Nov. 16 on JWST’s initial results, which included Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s astrophysics department. While committee members asked questions about lessons learned from JWST’s development and technical issues, no one raised the name controversy during the 90-minute hearing.

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