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NASA’s new space telescope named after official who led a homophobic ‘purge’

Emma Powys Maurice
·3-min read

NASA is facing calls to rename its James Webb Space Telescope in light of the man’s history of “purging” LGBT+ people from the workforce.

Dubbed “the next Hubble”, the telescope will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and is expected to revolutionise space research when it’s launched later this year.

It’s set to be named after former NASA administrator James Webb, a decision that’s stirring tensions after a trio of scientists highlighted his homophobic record.

Writing in the Scientific American, the astronomers Sarah Tuttle and Lucianne Walkowicz and physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein urged NASA to stop and reflect on a legacy that is “at best complicated and, at worst, complicit”.

They note that many astronomers “feel a debt of gratitude” to Webb, who led NASA through much of the Cold War era and oversaw a number of space missions, including the Apollo program.

But he also helped the science of pioneer psychological warfare and worked actively towards excluding LGBT+ people from government agencies.

The idea that the federal government had been “infiltrated” by homosexuals was widespread at the time, and Webb was aware of policies “purging” queer people from the federal workforce as early as 1950. When he joined NASA in 1961, he became responsible for implementing them.

“As a person in a management position, Webb was ultimately responsible for the policies enacted under his leadership, including homophobic policies that were in place when he later became NASA administrator,” the scientists write.

“Some argue that if Webb was complicit, so was everyone working in the administration at the time. We agree.

“Thankfully, NASA is not launching a telescope named after the entire administration, and individually its members would be poor choices for the honour for some of the same reasons that Webb is.”

As if Webb’s past wasn’t checkered enough, the scientists also point to archival evidence uncovered by astronomer Adrian Lucy, which suggests Webb was actively involved in Senate discussions that kicked off what’s known today as the Lavender Scare.

He is specifically named in confidential memos regarding “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts,” indicating that he was working as “a facilitator of homophobic policy discussions with members of the Senate”, the trio say.

“The time for lionising leaders who chose to be embedded 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 those who are coming up after us who should be cherished.”

While they aren’t the first to criticise Webb on similar grounds, their argument will be increasingly hard to ignore as the telescope approaches completion.

The good news is NASA appears to be open to corrective action: it used to call the asteroid Arrokoth by the name “Ultima Thule,” before changing in 2019 after complaints about the neo-Nazi connotations.

Whether they’ll be as open when it comes to the legacy of one of their own heroes is yet to be seen.