NASA has shared the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) first high-resolution images of deep space, including some galaxies pictured 13 billion years ago—not long after the Big Bang. But despite this remarkable achievement for science, the JWST continues to stand as a bitter reminder of our country’s willingness to tolerate and even memorialize queerphobia.
The JWST first came under controversy last year when it came to light that its namesake, James Webb, oversaw the Lavender Scare during his tenure as NASA’s second administrator. The Lavender Scare was a McCarthy-era moral panic in which suspected queer employees were exposed and purged from government positions.
Of particular concern was the firing of NASA employee Clifford L. Norton as a result of “‘immoral conduct’ and for possessing personality traits which render him ‘unsuitable for further Government employment.’” This took place after the Lavender Scare, while Webb was still administrator in charge of these kinds of security investigations.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, explained to NPR, “Either [Webb] was a wildly incompetent administrator and didn’t know that his head of security was interrogating employees in NASA facilities, or he knew exactly what was going on and he was in some sense party to overseeing the interrogation of someone for being gay.”
Prescod-Weinstein has since become the face of the effort to rename the telescope. While the “Just Wonderful” telescope has been a popular alternate name, she has championed naming it after Harriett Tubman. Although not an astronomer (and neither was Webb), Tubman used the night sky to navigate the Underground Railroad. “When we’re talking about sending something that represents humanity into space, we should be thinking about sending…something that represents our very best,” Prescod-Weinstein argued in a documentary on the JWST name.
Despite the controversy, NASA has declined to rename the telescope. “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s current administrator, told NPR.
But for some, the fight is far from over, and the recent images have only reignited the calls for a new name. Prescod-Weinstein tweeted, “As one of the people who has been leading the push to change the name, today feels bittersweet. I’m so excited for the new images and so angry at NASA HQ.”
Throughout the thread, Prescod-Weinstein explains the controversy, including NASA’s sugarcoating of James Webb’s history in a non-peer reviewed blog post which many readers have taken at face value. She concludes, “NASA leadership has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that what is now public info about JW’s legacy means he does not merit having a Great Observatory named after him.”
A petition was started last year to change the name, and at the time of this writing, it has garnered over 1,700 signatures.