James Webb telescope might soon have a new name

James Webb
The James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch this year.
Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

As you most probably know, the James Webb telescope is set to replace Hubble as our best outwards looking eye in the sky. While it is currently scheduled to be launched October 31, 2021, it is possible that it may have further delays and it might be a Nov or even a Dec launch.

If curious to discover what it is all about, then you can read the details here.

Why is it called James Webb?

It is named after James E Webb. He was the NASA administrator from 1961 until 1968. It was on his watch that all the critical first manned launches in the Mercury through Gemini programs happened.

His name was selected, not because he was a NASA administrator, but because while administrator he had strongly advocated that NASA keep science as a key part of its portfolio in the 1960s. Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, explains …

“Without James Webb’s leadership, there may have been no telescope or much of anything else at NASA noteworthy of a naming controversy,”

Why might the James Webb telescope get a new name?

It turns out that the legacy of James Webb has a very dark side as well. There has been a revelation that there was a previously existing federal policy that focused on purging all LBGT individuals and that he was part of that. Archival evidence has been revealed that he was a facilitator of this homophobic policy.

Some might argue that while at NASA he did good things for science but others strongly object to that and argue that the complete picture needs to be understood, and so honouring this guy sends the wrong message.

March 2021 – Scientific American – The James Webb Space Telescope Needs to Be Renamed

Wider awareness of the controversy emerged via the article in Scientific American from last March. Within it four astronomers take this stance …

The successor to the Hubble currently honors a man who acquiesced to homophobic government policies during the 1950s and 1960s

…The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material. There is no record of him choosing to stand up for the humanity of those being persecuted…

…The time for lionizing leaders who acquiesced in a history of harm is over. We should name telescopes out of love for those who came before us and led the way to freedom—and out of love for those who are coming up after

The authors of that article, the four astronomers, also launched a petition for the renaming. They are Lucianne Walkowicz at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois; Chanda Prescod-Weinstein at the University of New Hampshire in Durham; Brian Nord at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois; and Sarah Tuttle at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“We felt that we should take a public stand on naming such an important facility after someone whose values were so questionable, it’s time for NASA to stand up and be on the right side of history.”

Will NASA really rename it?

The best answer right now is “Perhaps”. The decision lies with NASA administrator Bill Nelson. So far he has not said anything. However, he does appear to have started laying the groundwork.

Last Friday (July 23, 2021) an article was published in Nature that gives us some insights into what is happening. Titled “NASA investigates renaming James Webb telescope after anti-LGBT+ claims” we learn the following …

NASA’s acting chief historian, Brian Odom, is working with a non-agency historian to review archival documents about Webb’s policies and actions, according to agency officials. Only after the investigation concludes will NASA decide what to do.

“We must make a conscious decision,” Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, told an agency advisory committee on 29 June. “We must be transparent with the community and with the public for the rationale for whichever decision we make.”…

…NASA has given no estimate of when its investigation might be complete. Odom says that the COVID-19 pandemic has limited historians’ access to archival records.

What happens if it is not renamed?

Some astronomers are also seriously considering what to do if NASA does not rename it. Johanna Teske, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC has suggested acknowledging LGBT+ rights within the acknowledgements sections of papers published using any data obtained from the telescope.

Does the name really matter?

It can be argued that successfully delivering a vastly improved telescope that will transform astronomy is what truly matters and that the name attached to it is not really all that important.

However, knowing what we now know, if we do continue to call in James Webb, then what message are we sending?

The people we choose to celebrate by naming our telescopes after them is a reflection of our values.

Peter Gao, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz

NASA have so far done the right thing. They are gathering facts. Whatever happens, it needs to be an evidence based decision and not simply an emotional reaction, so for the moment we wait for the conclusion to the current investigation.

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