NASA confirms decision to keep JWST name after historical report

WASHINGTON — NASA says a historical review of former Administrator James Webb’s actions has upheld his decision to keep the agency’s flagship space telescope in his honor.

NASA published on November 18 89 page report by the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom, looking into allegations that Webb, first at the State Department and later at NASA, was directly involved in firing employees based on their sexual orientation. These allegations have 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, there is no available evidence to date that directly links Webb to any actions or subsequent actions involving the firing of individuals based on their sexual orientation,” he said in the report.

NASA announced this in October 2021 an initial review of historical records found no evidence to confirm claims that Webb fired LGBTQ+ employees. At the time, however, NASA did not provide a detailed report supporting this finding. Astronomers, including the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, have been demanding that NASA release the report, a process that has been delayed by historical archives that have only recently been restored in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report addressed two specific allegations. One was that Webb, as Deputy Secretary of State in 1950, approved the firing 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 as a result of congressional investigations.

The second was in 1963, when Webb was NASA administrator. The agency’s budget analyst, Clifford Norton, was arrested and later fired because of his sexual orientation. Norton later sued the Civil Service Commission, a case that helped lead to the overturning of civil service policies that allowed such layoffs.

Odom concluded that Webb was likely unaware of the Norton case. “As this was the government’s policy, a layoff was highly likely – although unfortunately considered unlikely,” the report said.

The report’s findings, NASA said in a statement, confirm its earlier decision not to rename JWST. “Based on available evidence, the agency has no plans to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

However, both the report and the statement condemn past discrimination. “For decades, discrimination against LGBTQI+ federal employees has not just been tolerated, it has shamefully contributed to federal policy. The ‘Lavender Scare’ that followed World War II is a painful part of American history and the fight for LGBTQI+ rights,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

The report’s findings seemed unlikely to be accepted by at least some astronomers who have criticized the naming of JWST after James Webb. U statement of November 18the four astronomers who led the effort to rename JWST — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Luciana Walkovich, Sarah Tuttle and Brian Nord — said they had not yet read the report but believed it was too narrowly focused on these specific cases.

The report, they wrote, “seems to answer the question: ‘Is there clear physical evidence that James Webb knew about Clifford Norton and his case?’ That is a separate question from whether James Webb, as administrator, was responsible for the activities of the agency he directed?” They said they found it hard to believe that, as NASA administrator, Webb was unaware of Clifford’s firing.

“After all, Webb has a complicated legacy at best,” they concluded. “His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument.”

It’s unclear what the next steps will be for those who oppose naming JWST after Webb. In October, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the UK announced that it would require authors submitting articles to its journals to refer to the telescope solely as JWST and not spell it out as required for other acronyms. This policy will remain in effect, the RAS said, until the results of the historical investigation are published.

Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the RAS, told SpaceNews on Nov. 19 that he plans to bring the report to the organization’s governing board at its next meeting on Dec. 9.

However, there were several signs that criticism of the JWST name extended beyond the astronomical community. A subcommittee of the House Science Committee on Space held a Nov. 16 hearing on the initial JWST results, 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 challenges, no one took issue with its name during the 90-minute hearing. NASA confirms decision to keep JWST name after historical report

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