NASA confirms decision to keep JWST name after historical report
by Jeff Foust —
WASHINGTON — NASA says a historical review of actions by former administrator James Webb confirmed its decision to keep the agency’s flagship space telescope named after him.
NASA released Nov. 18 an 89-page report by the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom, reviewing allegations that Webb, first at the State Department and later at NASA, was directly involved in the firings of employees based on their sexual orientations. Those allegations had led many astronomers to call on NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope.
The study, Odom concluded, found no evidence to support those claims. “In conclusion, to date, no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation,” he stated in the report.
NASA said in October 2021 that its initial review of the historical record found no evidence to support claims Webb fired LGBTQ+ employees. However, at the time NASA did not provide a detailed report backing that conclusion. Astronomers, including the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, pressed NASA to release a report, a process delayed because of historical archives that have only recently reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report reviewed two specific allegations. One was that Webb, as deputy under secretary of state in 1950, approved firing s of LGBTQ+ employees at the State Department during the “Lavender Scare.” The historical record, Odom concluded, showed that Webb was primarily concerned with limiting access to State Department personnel records from congressional investigations.
The other was in 1963, when Webb was NASA administrator. An agency budget analyst, Clifford Norton, was arrested and later fired due to his sexual orientation. Norton later sued the Civil Service Commission, a case that helped lead to overturning civil service policies that permitted such firings.
Odom concluded that Webb likely was not aware of the Norton case. “Because it was accepted policy across the government, the firing was, highly likely – though, sadly – considered unexceptional,” he states in the report.
The report’s conclusions, NASA said in the statement, confirmed its earlier decision not to rename JWST. “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
However, both the report and the statement condemned past discrimination. “For decades, discrimination against LGBTQI+ federal employees was not merely tolerated, it was shamefully promoted by federal policies. The Lavender Scare that took place following World War II is a painful part of America’s story and the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement.
The report’s conclusions seemed unlikely to be accepted by at least some astronomers critical of naming JWST after James Webb. In a Nov. 18 statement, four astronomers who led the effort to rename JWST — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Lucianne Walkowicz, Sarah Tuttle and Brian Nord — said they had not yet read the report but believed it was focused too narrowly on those specific cases.
The report, they wrote, “seems to be answering the question ‘Is there definitive physical proof that James Webb knew about Clifford Norton and his case?’ That’s a separate question from, ‘Was James Webb, as administrator, responsible for the activities of the agency he led?’” They said they find it hard to believe that, as NASA administrator, Webb did not know of Clifford’s firing.
“Ultimately, Webb has at best a complicated legacy,” they concluded. “His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument.”
It’s not clear what next steps there are for those who oppose naming JWST after Webb. In October, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the United Kingdom announced that it would require authors submitting papers to its journals to refer to the telescope solely as JWST and not spell it out, as required for other acronyms. That policy would be in place, the RAS said, until the results of the historical investigation are published.
Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the RAS, told SpaceNews Nov. 19 that he planned to bring the report to the attention of the organization’s governing council at its next meeting Dec. 9.
There had been few signs, though, that criticism of JWST’s name had extended beyond the astronomical community. The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee held a hearing Nov. 16 on early results from JWST, with Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, among those testifying. While committee members asked questions about lessons learned from JWST’s development and technical issues, no one during the 90-minute hearing brought up the controversy about its name.