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A New Film Challenges the James Webb Telescope's Controversial Name

One thing has diminished astronomers’ enthusiasm over the images of stellar nebulae, exoplanets, and distant galaxies NASA released last week: the powerful new space telescope’s name. NASA officials named the flagship space probe after former administrator James Webb, who helmed the agency and served in the State Department in the 1950s and ’60s and is alleged to have been complicit in enforcing policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian government workers during the “Lavender Scare.”

This inspired Katrina Jackson and her colleagues at the nonprofit JustSpace Alliance to produce a new 41-minute documentary called Behind the Name, which was released on YouTube earlier this month. The movie explores Webb’s history, NASA’s opaque naming process, and growing pressure from the astronomical community to rename the telescope to alternatives like the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope, the Just Wonderful Space Telescope, or simply its acronym: JWST. “The goal is to get the name changed and for NASA to have an honest and open conversation about the naming process,” says Jackson, a video producer working part-time at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and other organizations.

Jackson’s documentary delves into problematic yet widespread government policies during the Cold War, when agency workers—including people at NASA—who were suspected of being LGBTQ were deemed a security risk and were investigated, interrogated, pushed to resign, or fired. It also dives into documents released in a report in Nature in March, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, regarding how much space agency officials knew about these policies during a 2021 internal probe done in the run-up to the telescope’s launch.

While information about individual cases is limited, one is particularly well-documented in both the Nature report and the movie, thanks to a lawsuit a NASA employee filed over his dismissal. In 1963, the suit alleges, employee Clifford Norton was seen in a car with another man and then taken into police custody; NASA security subsequently brought him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him throughout the night. According to Norton’s suit, in which he was defended by former astronomer Frank Kameny, he was told that it was a “custom within the agency” to fire people for “homosexual conduct” and was then dismissed from his position. An appeals court later ruled that employees “couldn’t be fired solely on grounds of being homosexual.” The Nature article points out that this lawsuit was noted as part of NASA’s 2021 internal probe, meaning agency officials had some proof that anti-LGBTQ policies were enforced during Webb’s tenure.

While discriminatory policies against LGBTQ workers were common in the 1950s and ’60s, under Webb NASA had the authority to set its own rules about who should be fired and for what reasons. “That Webb played a leadership position in the Lavender Scare is undeniable. The only thing left up to historical debate in this matter is whether or not his heart was in it. Was Webb emotionally invested in the persecution of LGBTQ people?” wrote a NASA historian in an email last summer during the agency’s investigation, according to the film.

To this day, Webb’s personal views remain unclear. (He died in 1992.) Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer and JustSpace cofounder who served as producer on the film, says that no one’s going to find a cartoonish version of homophobia in the official record, like Webb taping a “kick me” sign on someone. Instead, systematic and discriminatory policies should be the focus of critiques, Walkowicz says.

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The documentary features at least 10 space experts who endorse a name change. Updating the telescope’s name “would help send the message that NASA in its current era does not tolerate the same sort of intolerance that was present in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Tessa Fisher, an astronomer at Arizona State University, tells the documentarians. “I think we can do better than naming a scientific instrument that has the possibility to answer questions that the entire world is interested in after a Cold Warrior,” says writer and space historian Audra Wolfe, author of the book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.

Over the past 20 years—with the exception of this mission—NASA has had open calls for suggested names for spacecraft and rovers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Rolf Danner points out in the film, saying it has “picked figures that are significant and can show us where we want to go in the future.” While he praises NASA’s name for its first Mars rover—after abolitionist Sojourner Truth—and its upcoming infrared telescope named for astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, he calls the JWST a deviation from that history.

Even before it became controversial, the naming of the telescope—provisionally called the Next Generation Space Telescope when work began—was at least unconventional. NASA officials generally name space telescopes near their launch and usually after prominent astronomers, like they did with the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. In contrast, former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe announced that the new instrument would be named after Webb, a bureaucrat who led the agency during the Apollo program—and he did it 20 years before the telescope launched, without consulting the astronomical community.

Now the dispute over Webb’s legacy has cast a shadow over his $10 billion namesake, especially among LGBTQ astronomers and space fans. “If you are a person who is cis and straight in astronomy, then maybe this doesn’t seem all that personal to you,” Walkowicz says. “For me, this has essentially ruined the delivery of these first images, which I would like to be excited about.”

Walkowicz and three of their colleagues called for NASA to change the name in a 2021 petition signed by more than 1,800 astronomers, many of whom hoped to use the telescope’s instruments for research. The quartet also made their case in a Scientific American opinion piece last year. The lead author of that piece, University of New Hampshire astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, had for years raised concerns on social media about homophobic policies during Webb’s tenure at NASA. She and others also pointed out that Ultima Thule, NASA’s initial name chosen in 2018 for a Kuiper Belt object, had Nazi connotations. The agency renamed it Arrokoth the following year.

But despite the outcry, NASA officials chose not to rename the telescope. In July 2021, the agency initiated an internal investigation, which included the documents later acquired by Nature via a FOIA request. That September, current NASA administrator Bill Nelson handed out a one-sentence statement to six reporters: “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” (In response, Walkowicz resigned from the NASA astrophysics advisory committee.) At the time, the agency granted no interviews and released no additional information.

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(NASA press representatives declined to comment to WIRED this week on the documentary or the agency’s broader policies for naming space telescopes.)

Pressure on the agency has continued. In November 2021, and again this March, the American Astronomical Society, the leading astronomy organization in the US, sent a statement to NASA leadership asking the agency to commit to completing its investigation and releasing a full report. Whether the JWST is renamed, naming “should be an open process with broad community input for future telescopes and missions,” Danner, head of AAS’s committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy, told WIRED in an interview. Telescopes should be named after “individuals who identify with the vision we want to have for the future.”

During a town hall meeting in April, NASA’s astrophysics division director, Paul Hertz, acknowledged that many in the space community felt hurt and disappointed, and that NASA’s investigation is ongoing and will result in a public report.

Astronomical institutions have been struggling with other controversies and allegations of discrimination. For example, the giant National Science Foundation-funded Thirty Meter Telescope is currently being built on Maunakea, despite vocal opposition from Native Hawaiians. (A change in management to include Native Hawaiian voices could help resolve the dispute.) A few years ago, sexual misconduct scandals involving planetary scientists and astronomers rocked the space community. A 2019 study documented how gender and sexual minorities in astronomy face harassment at work, and an influential report last year documented gender bias and a lack of racial diversity in astronomy.

Jackson hopes her documentary will reach a broad range of viewers to persuade people to take these issues seriously, for the sake of not only the JWST but other major NASA programs. “I think that they should definitely reassess the name and take into consideration the astronomy community’s feelings,” she says.

Updated 7-21-2022 8:30 pm ET: This story was updated to correct Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's affiliation.

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