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NASA once again declines to rename the James Webb Space Telescope

This illustration shows the James Webb Space Telescope as it might appear as it orbits the sun, about a million miles away from Earth.
NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez
This illustration shows the James Webb Space Telescope as it might appear as it orbits the sun, about a million miles away from Earth.

The James Webb Space Telescope will remain The James Webb Space Telescope, despite criticism from some astronomers who refuse to call it that.

They object to honoring a NASA administrator who led the agency at a time when the government persecuted gay workers. But after an extensive review of historical records, NASA now says it "found no evidence that Webb was either a leader or proponent of firing government employees for their sexual orientation."

"Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," the agency said in a statement released on Friday, Nov. 18.

Space telescopes have traditionally been named after scientists, like astronomer Edwin Hubble. But back when NASA was designing and building what's now its flagship telescope, an administrator unilaterally decided to name the powerful instrument after James Webb, an accomplished leader who oversaw the Apollo program that sent astronauts to the moon.

Last year, before the $10 billion telescope was launched into space, several astronomers wrote an article for Scientific American calling for this observatory to be renamed. They argued that Webb's leadership role during a time when the federal government was investigating and purging gay employees meant he effectively had to have been complicit.

Many astronomy researchers signed on to a petition urging NASA to change the name, and some pointedly refer to the telescope only by its initials. The American Astronomical Society even reminded its members this month that they don't need to use the telescope's full name when submitting scientific papers to the society's journals.

In 2021, NASA started to investigate records related to Webb's time in government, but the coronavirus pandemic meant that access to some archival collections was restricted.

"A critically important part of this whole investigation was getting access to records," says Brian Odom, NASA's chief historian. "COVID presented a huge challenge to that."

Still, after an initial review, NASA's administrator Bill Nelson released a statement in September of last year saying that the telescope's name would remain unchanged. At the time, some astronomers were unhappy that NASA was not more transparent about how officials came to that decision.

Now, NASA has publicly posted the full report describing its investigation of Webb's time in government, both at the State Department and NASA.

Odom and his colleagues reviewed over 50,000 pages of documents covering the period from 1949-1969.

"I'm satisfied that we've done our due diligence, that we have gone through the records that we needed to go through," he says.

This 1965 photo shows NASA head James Webb (center) with Alabama Governor George Wallace (left), and rocket expert Wernher von Braun.
This 1965 photo shows NASA head James Webb (center) with Alabama Governor George Wallace (left), and rocket expert Wernher von Braun.

This broad review turned up nothing about Webb's own opinions on the federal government's employment policies, says Odom, other than his intention to implement the policies set by his superiors. For example, Webb was very concerned that NASA centers comply with new equal employment opportunity practices related to race and gender.

"We really still don't really know how he felt about any of these issues," says Odom, saying that Webb's main concern seemed to be understanding the administration's policies and putting them into effect while also fulfilling other priorities, like going to the moon.

In Webb's communications about personnel issues at NASA, homosexuality just doesn't come up, says Odom. He found no evidence that Webb was ever aware of the firing of Clifford J. Norton in 1963. Norton was a NASA budget analyst who lost his job after being arrested by the police for having made a "homosexual advance," and later sued the government.

The report also examines an episode during Webb's time at the State Department, in 1950, when he met with Senator Clyde Hoey, who led a congressional inquiry into homosexuals in the federal government.

"Based upon the available evidence, Webb's main involvement was in attempting to limit Congressional access to the personnel records of the Department of State," the new NASA report states, adding that Webb did apparently pass along some materials on homosexuality provided by another federal employee.

"None of the evidence found links Webb to actions emerging from this discussion. Nor does Webb, in the aftermath of the June 28 meeting, follow up on the matter – whether via memoranda or correspondence," NASA's report says.

Critics of the telescope's name say NASA's approach to this whole issue is sorely lacking. The four astronomers who authored the Scientific American article sent NPR a joint statement which says that "NASA's statement relies on a practice of selective historical reading: where there is not a piece of paper that explicitly says 'James Webb knew about this,' they assume it means he did not."

Noting that "all evidence points to the suggestion that Webb continued to be in positions of power specifically because he was highly competent," these astronomers say it's likely that Webb knew much about the security practices at his agency during the Cold War, when being gay was perceived as being a national security risk.

"It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership — activities that were actually conducted by other people — but refuse to accept his culpability for the problems," they write.

They add that NASA's stance may be seen as implying that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination that happen on their watch.

Odom says he understands why people can have passionate feelings about the name of the telescope, calling the persecution of gay government workers a "painful chapter in American history."

"I'm very familiar with how the past can still have an impact on the present. And I understand why it means so much to people," says Odom. "But ultimately, you know, we have to go where the evidence takes us."

Even if there's no evidence that Webb led efforts to oust gay people from government, says Odom, understanding that part of history and the damage it did to people's lives is important as NASA moves forward and tries to have open conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

"If we don't make this a usable past," says Odom, "we will fail to learn the lessons that it can provide us and we will be weaker for it."

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Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.