James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, during the “Lavender Scare” Cold War era, when government agencies often enforced policies that discriminated against gays and federal workers. For this reason, astronomers and others have long called on NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s suspected role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This afternoon, NASA released this long-awaited report by the agency’s principal historian Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made it clear that the agency would not change the name of the telescope, writing: “Based on available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Still, the report makes clear that this is a period in federal policy — and in American history on a massive scale.” broader – it was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”
Odom was tasked with finding any, if any, evidence linking Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Tracking down evidence of 60-year-old controversial events made it a difficult subject to study, says Odom, but he was able to draw on plenty of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.
These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who sued claiming he was fired in 1963 after he was seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, according to his lawsuit, and NASA security later brought him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him overnight. He was later fired from his job.
Such treatment of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian was common at the time, following President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order, which listed “sexual perversion” among the types of behavior considered suspicious. However, the NASA report states, “No evidence was found to show that Webb knew of the Norton firing at that time. Given that it was accepted throughout government, it was very likely – though, unfortunately – that the firing was not exceptional “.
The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate critics who have for years called for JWST’s name change. Webb has a complicated legacy at best, including his involvement in promoting psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him $10 billion from a memorial,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists wrote in a statement on Substack today. They question the interpretation that the lack of explicit evidence indicates that Webb had no knowledge of or handed over the layoffs within his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we have to assume he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the NASA administrator should know if his security chief is questioning people extrajudicially.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this release — the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday — is no coincidence, a way to make the report less readable. “The fact that they did it even though it’s LGBT STEM Day tells you what the administration’s priorities are,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA usually names telescopes after notable astronomers, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and Compton telescopes. Web Exception. He led the agency as it advanced the space program toward the moon landing and promoted astronomy research, but he was a bureaucrat rather than an astronomer.
Although agency officials have advocated for Webb’s name to be retained, Odom says, “We should still use this history as an example of a past that was traumatic for a lot of people. That past, whatever Webb’s role in it, is important to us moving forward.”
NASA’s choice not to rename the telescope is “not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralph Danner, an astronomer at JPL and co-chair of the US Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. Whether Webb knew about Norton’s treatment, or whether there was evidence of it, Danner argues, is really irrelevant, because Webb defended those policies as a NASA official. “It’s just a misnomer to show the future of astronomy.”