The US space agency NASA has decided to archive the request of a group of astronomers who claimed that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWSP), a space observatory developed by almost twenty countries, do not bear the name of the manager, who is accused of having collaborated with homophobic policies. James Webb, born in North Carolina (USA) in 1906, was NASA administrator between 1961 and 1968, the years in which the space race and the program were forged Apolo, culminating in man’s arrival on the Moon in July 1969. Space agency astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz has announced her resignation after refusing to change the telescope’s name.
In an open letter addressed to the North American entity’s astrophysics advisory committee, Walkowicz explains his decision: “I resign from my position the same day that NASA decides to email only a few selected journalists their pathetic position on the change of JWST name ”. According to the scientist, with the refusal to change the name, “NASA sends a clear message of its position on the rights of astronomers queer and it clearly tells me that it is not worth my time ”.
In March, theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astronomers Lucianne Walkowicz and Sarah Tuttle, and cosmologist Brian Nord, LGBT activists signed an article in the magazine Scientific American where they asked NASA to reconsider the name assigned to the largest telescope that has ever been put into orbit and whose launch is scheduled for December 18. The petition launched by the four scientists has received the support of some 1,200 signatures.
The reason for the request, according to the researchers, is that Webb, before being sole administrator of NASA, had allegedly collaborated from the State Department in the call lavender scare, the “purple terror”. It was a witch hunt against homosexual people who held positions in the Administration and who were considered “threats to national security”, according to the historian of the University of South Florida David Johnson, author of the book The lavender scare. Johnson estimates there were at least 10,000 fired for discrimination.
As head of NASA, Webb was, according to the scientists, “partly responsible for implementing what was then a federal policy: the purge of LGBTI + working people.” In their petition they mention Cliffer Norton, a NASA employee arrested in 1963 and finally fired. “Under Webb’s leadership,” they write, “the people queer they were persecuted ”. In addition, they assure: “There is at least one documentary evidence that clearly shows that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he delivered homophobic material. There is no evidence that he defended the humanity of the people who were persecuted ”.
In response to the investigators’ complaints, the US space agency promised to study the case and responded to this newspaper by email: “NASA is aware of the concerns that have been raised about James E. Webb and we are working with historians to examine his role in government ”.
The European Space Agency ESA, partner of the project, declared that “inclusion” is one of its “fundamental values” and promised to discuss with NASA what to do, according to the results of the investigation. The Canadian Space Agency, also an associate operator of the telescope, did not reply.
Finally, on Monday, September 27, the NASA administrator appointed by Joe Biden in May, former Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, 79, concluded: “We have not found any evidence at this time that justifies a change of Name”.
Reaction of the promoters of the campaign
The resolution has not satisfied the promoters of the campaign to change the name. Prescod-Weinstein explains in an email: “As scientists, we are educated to draw conclusions based on the evidence and NASA has decided to ignore this scientific principle because it is not politically expedient. It is the typical example of gaslighting [manipulación en la que se siembran dudas sobre la víctima para hacer que llegue a dudar de su cordura] which all LGBT + people in physics and astronomy have to face on a daily basis. Stating that there is no evidence to justify the name change means that what people queer we feel like painful is not important to the Biden administration and the heads of NASA ”.
The James Webb name for this telescope, which will be able to see the light of the first objects in the universe, was chosen in 2002 by then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, who, like Webb, did not come from the scientific world. Until then it was called Next Generation Space Telescope (Next Generation Space Telescope). But, normally, telescopes are given the name of some scientist (more rarely of female scientists). O’Keefe decided without much debate to honor the man who had made NASA stronger in the 1960s.
But as of 2015, Webb’s role in the persecution of homosexual people began to be questioned, an action that led to the request of scientists: “These last years have taught us to defend what we believe and to make hope a practice. That is why we have decided to take a position of principle on this issue, especially after someone decided to publicly rehabilitate Webb’s reputation and imply that he had been unjustly defamed. Many astronomers accepted the story without research. When you look at the files, they simply do not support this position. “
It’s true that Webb was a top manager in a time when homosexuals were being fired. However, I don’t know of any evidence that he was a promoter of the purge of these
David Johnson, historian
Historian David Johnson disagrees: “It is true that Webb was a top manager at a time when homosexuals were being fired. However, I don’t know of any evidence that he was a promoter of the purge of these. He did participate in a meeting with President Truman’s Administration to contain the hysteria of McCarthyism and lilac terror, but we don’t know what he said. And, on the Cliffer Norton case, at the time it was a law, and Webb couldn’t have done anything to save him. The sad reality is that hardly anyone objected. In this sense, also the presidents Kennedy or Johnson were just as accomplices: and in NASA there is a Kennedy Space Center and a Johnson Space Center ”. The historian believes that having opened the debate on lilac terror is very positive, but adds: “Demonizing Webb seems wrong to me.”
Renaming a telescope is not very common. The most famous exception was the Gamma-ray Burst Swift space observatory launched in 2004. It was renamed the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in 2018, in honor of its former chief scientist.
Despite the little success of her petition, the promoters of the name change continue to defend her: “We have sent a message to the generation of scientists queer who will come after us fighting to make room for them. We knew it was possible to change the name. We have discovered that spacetime is accelerating, we can certainly rename a telescope. The most important scientific instruments should be named after the best that humanity can give of itself ”.
Alternative names would not be lacking. Lucianne Walkowicz proposes Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and political activist born in slavery. Javier Armentia, director of the Pamplona Planetarium and member of PRISMA – association for affective-sexual and gender diversity in science, technology and innovation – recalls that, just one month before the launch, on November 18, LGBT day is celebrated + STEM, dedicated to the people of these groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In this sense, he affirms: “This date is in homage to the struggle that the astronomer Frank Kameny made for having been fired for refusing to testify about his sexual conduct in the time of the purple terror. It would be a good name. “
The historian Johnson supports the proposal: “A recognition of some kind to Kameny and an apology to the persecuted and fired people are initiatives that NASA should undertake if it wants to demonstrate its commitment.”
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