Published: 29th July 2021
What The FAQ: Why NASA's James Webb Space Telescope might get a new name after homophobic controversy
Astronomers Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz and Brian Nord launched the petition to change the name of the telescope in May
While NASA is set to launch its successor to the Hubble telescope, fresh controversy has cropped up. Some astronomers think it would be "unfortunate" if the telescope is named after James Webb because he was accused of being deeply homophobic and persecuting LGBT individuals. Here's all you want to know.
What is the JWST?
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or "Webb") is a joint project of NASA, European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency and is planned to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA's flagship astrophysics mission.
Why it might be renamed?
Astronomers Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz and Brian Nord launched the petition to change the name of the telescope in May. They had published an article in the Scientific American in March in which they said that “NASA’s current plan is to launch this incredible instrument into space carrying the name of a man whose legacy at best is complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government”. This was "unfortunate", they added.
Who is James Webb?
"The man whose name NASA has chosen to bestow upon the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is most commonly linked to the Apollo moon program, not to science," reads James Webb's profile page on NASA's website. "Yet, many believe that James E Webb, who ran the space agency from February 1961 to October 1968, did more for science than perhaps any other government official and that it is only fitting that the Next Generation Space Telescope would be named after him," it added.
James Edwin Webb (October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992) was an American government official who served as the second appointed administrator of NASA from February 14, 1961 to October 7, 1968. Webb oversaw NASA from the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the end of the Johnson administration, thus overseeing all the critical first manned launches in the Mercury through Gemini Programs, until just before the first crewed Apollo flight. He also dealt with the Apollo 1 fire.
What are the allegations?
The astronomers alleged that Webb sacked LGBT individuals from the workforce during his tenure. The federal policy “which was a forerunner to the anti-gay witch hunt known today as the lavender scare”. The astronomers also wrote that Webb was aware of this as early as 1950.
But not all astronomers agree with the four who have levelled allegations. It has now triggered a debate as some of the scientists and astronomers who don't want to rename the telescope say that there is not enough evidence to implicate Webb. They also believe that the window to do so has passed as the telescope is due for launch in November 2021.