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UW astronomers support renaming flagship NASA telescope after Harriet Tubman

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Astronomy professor Dr. Sarah Tuttle is one of four co-authors — Tuttle, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Dr. Brian Nord, Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz — of a petition to rename the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST); according to Tuttle, this petition has amassed more than 1600 signatures.

The JWST, billed as the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, will allow astronomers to peer further back into the history of the universe than ever before. It will launch in December and is anticipated to make discoveries that will dominate the field of astronomy for the next decade, hopefully inspiring future generations of scientists.

Delayed for 14 years and costing nearly $10 billion, the telescope’s latest controversy stems not from political gridlock, but from NASA’s apparent lack of social consciousness and the agency’s failure to make good on its promises of diversity and inclusivity.

Damning evidence has come to light that James Webb, the telescope’s namesake and NASA’s chief administrator during the Apollo missions, was directly involved in planning the Lavender Scare, the anti-queer witch hunt of the mid-20th century. Coinciding with the anti-communist Red Scare, hundreds of LGBTQIA+ federal employees were persecuted by institutionalized, homophobic discrimination policies across all levels of the federal government. 

A series of memos showed Webb’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the Senate subcommittee that authored a report in 1950 titled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” The investigative subcommittee, chaired by North Carolina Senator Clyde R. Hoey, concluded that “those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the federal government.” The report goes on to state that “persons who indulge in such degraded activity are committing not only illegal and immoral acts, but they also constitute security risks in positions of public trust.”

Adrian Lucy, an astronomer at Columbia University, unearthed documents linking Webb to Hoey and his homophobic sentiments. The memos detail meetings between then-President Truman and Webb, who served as a second ranking officer in the Department of State from 1949-1952, about Hoey’s subcommittee. They also provide evidence that Webb and Hoey met, at which point Webb passed along a set of reports on “the problem of homosexuals and moral perverts in the federal government” for Hoey to use in his investigation.

Though the petition has been making its way through the astronomy community, it has fallen upon the deaf ears of NASA leadership. The agency launched an investigation into the matter, which was unofficially concluded Sept. 30, leaking its decision to keep the JWST’s name to select media outlets: "We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” current NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview with NPR.

Also on Sept. 30, NASA’s acting chief historian and head of the investigation, Brian Odom, reported to Nature that he considered the matter to be closed. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Odom’s team wasn’t able to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. or the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence, Missouri, both of which may contain relevant information.

“Under the circumstances of COVID, the investigation was as thorough as possible and very objective,” Odom said in the interview with Nature. He also reported that Nelson made the decision to keep the JWST’s name.

“You know at this point it's become clear that when [NASA] is talking about evidence, they're looking for the smoking gun,” Tuttle said. “They're looking for the treatise that James Webb wrote about how much he hates gay people, which I mean I think we all would take the bet that they're not going to find that.”

NASA’s lackluster response prompted Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, another of the petition’s co-creators, to resign from their position on the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC) in protest, writing an open letter Oct. 12 expressing their frustration.

“My experience of science has been that it's a process of finding out that you're wrong a lot, and then taking that information and figuring out how to improve, and then ultimately doing better science because of that,” Brynn MacCoy, a physics Ph.D. student who signed the petition, said. “That's a process that people who work in science should be very familiar with, and I think that they have a real opportunity to do that here. They've chosen a name [that] there is evidence suggesting that it was the wrong choice, and they are not taking that information and improving.”

Many astronomers are upset by Webb’s paradoxical legacy, notably the conflict between the praise for his leadership during NASA’s golden era and his history of persecuting queer employees, specifically in the case of Clifford Norton, an employee in the 1960s who was arrested for "homosexual solicitation" and interrogated by NASA security agents. 

As the agency’s chief administrator, Webb bears responsibility for all that happened at NASA during his tenure there. Allowing Webb to sidestep the consequences of his homophobic actions normalizes heterosexual narratives as the only history worth telling, actively harming NASA’s queer astronomers, federal employees, and its lofty legacy of hope and exploration.

“Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo. Leaders are responsible not only for the actions of those they lead, but the climate they create within their spheres of influence,” the petition reads. 

“It feels like the opposite of a welcome sign,” Natalie “Nicole” Sanchez, an astronomy Ph.D. student, said. “It says, ‘Hey, you’re not welcome here’ to all queer scientists … And that's wrong, metaphorically, like it's wrong of them to do that, but it's also factually incorrect … There are tons and tons of incredible scientists of all varying queer identities and marginalized identities.”

The decision to name the telescope after Webb also marks a break from NASA’s naming traditions. Sean O’Keefe, the agency’s chief administrator when the JWST was first proposed, chose to name the new telescope after Webb, citing Webb’s service and commitment to science. However, NASA typically names telescopes after famous scientists — Einstein, Copernicus, Hubble, and Kepler have all had instruments named after them. 

Even further, NASA has a history of renaming objects. The agency issued a statement last August addressing the racist connotations of nicknames such as the “Eskimo Nebula” and the “Siamese Twins Galaxy,” announcing its commitment to reevaluating problematic names. In May 2020, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) was renamed in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer. 

“The bar is at the center of the Earth,” Sanchez said. “If this is going to relieve even the base modicum of harm for other LGBTQ scientists because some jerk’s name is on a telescope, it's an easy decision.”

Many other space telescopes, such as the Einstein Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Hubble were all given their final names following successful launches. 

NASA’s refusal to be transparent in their investigation, their failure to issue a report as promised, and their hypocritical lack of respect for the queer astronomy community is particularly stinging in the face of its stated commitment toward “a culture of diversity and inclusion.” The organization is counting on the controversy to die down and for public opinion to swing in its favor.

“NASA has spent the last several years pushing really hard about, ‘We're very interested in diversity and inclusion, we don't understand why we mostly fund white men, we don't understand why white men lead all our projects, we really want to go to great lengths to fix that,’” Tuttle said. “The answer is, if you're outwardly hostile to minoritized people, we get the hint. We’re not going to join your club.”

While many astronomers are upset about the JWST’s namesake, they are incredibly excited for the science that will come from it and the astronomical discoveries yet to be made. In the spirit of NASA’s mission to “discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein proposed that the telescope be named after Harriet Tubman, who likely used the North Star to guide enslaved Black people to freedom.

“The telescope's name doesn't change who Webb was or what he did — that's all in the past,” Dr. Mike Wong, a former astronomy postdoc, said in a direct message. “What renaming the telescope does is it speaks to the present and to the future. It speaks to what we want our values to be today so that we can set a course towards a better, more inclusive tomorrow.”

Reach reporter Sarah Kahle at Twitter: @sarkahle

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