NASA is investigating the possibility of changing the name of the James Webb telescope after reports surfaced about the honoree’s involvement in the “Lavender Scare”, a historic period of the US government, between the 40s and 60s, in which homosexuals were persecuted and dismissed from federal posts.
Assembled in May by four astronomers, the requisition has already garnered 1,250 signatures, including scientists who are on the “waiting list” to use Hubble’s successor. The James Webb telescope is scheduled for launch this year. According to those involved, the name may glorify intolerance and anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment.
Brian Odom, the agency’s chief historian, is working with other historians outside NASA to investigate documentary archives on Webb’s policies and actions; only after the review will the agency make a decision.
“We have to be transparent with the community and the public about the reasons for our decisions,” Paul Hertz, head of the astrophysics division, told an agency committee in June.
James Webb and Lavender Scare
James Webb was NASA director between February 1961 and October 1968. He was honored for balancing the agency’s priorities between the space program and science. This moderation was important during the execution of the Apollo Program, which, according to the scientific journal Nature, pulled “a good part” of the budget.
In addition, he was known for creating partnerships with universities across the country with the NASA University Program, which built laboratories and provided scholarships to graduate students.
Prior to joining NASA, Webb worked at the US State Department in the 1940s during the rise of the “Lavender Scare” period.
According to the petition, the bureaucrat was Undersecretary of State between 1949 and 1952 and passed a list of memos discussing “The problem of homosexuals and perverts” to the senator who led the movement. The authors point to US National Archives and Documents Administration records.
Also according to Nature, David Jhonson, a historian at the University of Southern California who wrote The Lavender Scare in 2004, says he does not know of evidence that Webb led or instigated the persecutions. Webb attended White House meetings about the move, but the committee sought to contain the hysteria members of Congress were instigating.
The authors assert that Webb has responsibility for discriminatory policies during his term of office. “We believe that historical archives speak in favor of renaming the telescope,” they conclude. The petition was published in a column in Scientific American.