A NASA astrophysicist resigns over the rejection of the name change of the James Webb telescope, a former director accused of homophobia

The US space agency NASA has decided to archive the request of a group of astronomers who claimed that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWSP), a space observatory developed by almost twenty countries , does not bear the name of the manager, who they accuse of having collaborated with homophobic policies. James Webb, born in North Carolina (USA) in 1906, was NASA Administrator between 1961 and the years in which the space race and the Apollo program were forged, culminating in the arrival of man on the Moon in July 1969. The astrophysicist of the space agency Lucianne Walkowicz has announced her resignation after the refusal to change the name of the telescope.

In an open letter addressed to the advisory committee on astrophysics of the North American entity, Walkowicz explains his decision: “I resign my position the same day that NASA decides to email only a select few journalists its pathetic position on the JWST name change.” According to the scientist, with the refusal to change the name, “NASA sends a clear message of its position on the rights of astronomers queer and clearly tells me that it is not It’s worth my time. ”

In March, theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astronomers Lucianne Walkowicz and Sarah Tuttle, and cosmologist Brian Nord, LGBT activists signed an article in the magazine Scientific American where they asked NASA to reconsider the name assigned to the largest telescope that has ever been put into orbit and whose launch is scheduled for 18 from December. The petition launched by the four scientists has received the support of about 1. 200 signatures.

The reason for the request, according to the researchers, is that Webb, before being sole administrator of NASA, had allegedly collaborated from the State Department in the so-called lavender scare , the “purple terror”. It was a witch hunt against homosexual people who held positions in the Administration and who were considered “threats to national security”, according to the historian of the University of South Florida David Johnson, author of the book The lavender scare . Johnson estimates that there was at least 10. 000 fired for discrimination.

As head of the NASA, Webb was, according to the scientists, “partly responsible for implementing what was then a federal policy: the purge of LGBTI + working people.” In their petition they mention Cliffer Norton, a NASA employee arrested in 1963 and who was eventually fired. “Under Webb’s leadership,” they write, “ queer people were persecuted.” In addition, they assure: “There is at least one documentary evidence that clearly shows that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he delivered homophobic material. There is no evidence that he defended humanity from people being persecuted. ”

NASA Research

In response to the investigators’ complaints, the US space agency promised to study the case and responded to this newspaper by email: “NASA is aware of the concerns that have arisen about James E. Webb and we are working with historians to examine their role in government. ”

The European Space Agency ESA, a partner in the project, declared that“ inclusion ”is one of its“ core values ​​”and promised to discuss with NASA what to do, according to the results of the investigation. The Canadian Space Agency, also an associate operator of the telescope, did not reply.

Finally, last Monday 27 September, NASA Administrator Joe Biden appointed in May, former Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of 79 years, concluded: “We have not found any evidence at this time to justify a name change.”

Reaction of the promoters of the campaign

The resolution has not satisfied the promoters of the campaign to change the name. Prescod-Weinstein explains in an email: “As scientists, we are educated to draw conclusions based on the evidence and NASA has chosen to ignore this scientific principle because it is not politically expedient. It is the typical example of gaslighting which all LGBT + people in physics and astronomy have to face on a daily basis. Claiming that there is no evidence to justify the name change means that what we queer people feel as painful is not important to the Biden administration and NASA bosses. ”

James Webb’s name for this telescope, which will be able to see the light of the first objects in the universe, was chosen in 2002 by then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who, like Webb, did not come from the scientific world. Until then it was called Next Generation Space Telescope . But, normally, telescopes are given the name of some scientist (more rarely of female scientists). O’Keefe decided without much debate to honor the man who had strengthened NASA in the sixties.

But from 2015 began to question the role of Webb in the persecution of homosexual people, an action that led to the request of scientists: “These last years have taught us to defend what we believe and to make hope a practice. That is why we have decided to take a position of principle on this issue, especially after someone decided to publicly rehabilitate Webb’s reputation and imply that he had been unjustly defamed. Many astronomers accepted the story without research. When you look at the files, they simply do not support this position. ”

It is true that Webb he was a top manager in a time when homosexuals were being fired. However, I know of no evidence that he was a promoter of the purge of these

David Johnson, historian

Historian David Johnson disagrees: “It is true that Webb was a senior manager at a time when they were saying goodbye homosexuals. However, I don’t know of any evidence that he was a promoter of the purge of these. He did participate in a meeting with the Truman Administration to contain the hysteria of McCarthyism and lilac terror, but we don’t know what he said. And, on the Cliffer Norton case, at the time it was a law, and Webb couldn’t have done anything to save him. The sad reality is that hardly anyone objected. In this sense, also the presidents Kennedy or Johnson were just as accomplices: and in NASA there is a Kennedy Space Center and a Johnson Space Center ”. The historian believes that having opened the debate on lilac terror is very positive, but adds: “Demonizing Webb seems wrong to me.”

Changing the name of a telescope is not very frequent. The most famous exception was the Gamma-ray Burst Swift space observatory launched in 2004. It was renamed in 2018 as Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, in honor of its former scientist.

Despite the little success of her petition, the promoters of the name change continue to defend her: “We have sent a message to the generation of queer scientists who will come after us fighting to make a hole for them. We knew it was possible to change the name. We have discovered that spacetime is accelerating, we can certainly rename a telescope. The most important scientific instruments should be named after the best that humanity can give of itself. ”

Alternative names would not be lacking. Javier Armentia, director of the Pamplona Planetarium and member of PRISMA – association for affective-sexual and gender diversity in science, technology and innovation – recalls that, just one month before the launch, the 18 November, the LGBT + STEM day is celebrated, dedicated to the people of these groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In this sense, he states: “This date is in homage to the struggle that the astronomer Frank Kameny made for having been fired for refusing to testify about his sexual conduct in the time of the purple terror. It would be a good name. ”

The historian Johnson supports the proposal:“ A recognition of some kind to Kameny and an apology to the persecuted and fired people are initiatives that NASA should undertake if you want to show your commitment. ”

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