The equipment, known as JWST, is the space agency’s big hope for finding evidence of life on other planets. The $10 billion telescope includes a range of advanced and highly precise tools that wil allow it to see light from the very beginnings of the universe and “sniff” the environments of distant planets.
It is perhaps Nasa’s most high-profile imminent project and is often seen as the successor to the well known and important Hubble Space Telescope.
But some argue that naming the telescope after James Webb is inappropriate, especially given its importance. They say that it should be given a new name before it is launched into space in December.
Nasa named the telescope because James Webb served as Nasa administrator, during the period that saw it work to put humans onto the Moon as part of the Apollo programme.
But it is the work he did before he held that role that has proven controversial. Webb was Undersecretary of State during the “Lavender Scare”, during which many LGBTQ people were driven from roles in government service.
It is this history that the authors of a petition to rename the telescope pointed to when they called on Nasa to choose a new name. They say that the mission “reflects the rainbow of possible universes that our community imagines, dreams about, and works for, and its name should reflect its future legacy” and that the name should be the same.
The authors themselves included scientists who expect to use the telescope once it is scanning the skies. More than 1,200 people signed that petition.
As the controversy continued, Nasa said that its historians would open an investigation into Webb’s conduct. It has not said how it conducted the research or how it came to its conclusion – but told NPR that the investigation had concluded that a name change was not necessary.
“We’ve done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” senior science communications officer Karen Fox said in an email, NPR reported. “Those efforts have not uncovered evidence warranting a name change.”
That has already drawn criticism from those who back a change of name, but also for its lack of transparency.