Will NASA rename the James Webb Space Telescope? A space expert explains the Lavender Scare controversy.

28th July, 2022.      //   Space Travel  // 




The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are astounding. With its deep infrared eyes, the telescope is illuminating regions of the universe with never-before-possible clarity.

The telescope is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. More than 300(opens in new tab) universities, companies, space agencies and organizations are involved.

In the excitement, it’s easy to forget the Webb telescope has been the subject of controversy. It’s named after a NASA administrator who has been associated(opens in new tab) with the persecution of queer people in the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s and ’60s.

Who was James E. Webb?

James Edwin Webb was born in 1906(opens in new tab) in North Carolina. He gained degrees in education and law(opens in new tab) and spent time in the US Marine Corps.

He held a senior position in the State Department from 1949 until the early 1950s.

In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy appointed(opens in new tab) Webb to the position of NASA administrator, the second(opens in new tab) since the agency was established in 1958.

In this role, he was responsible for the Apollo program(opens in new tab) to land humans on the moon. He was very successful in lobbying for support from Congress, and also navigated NASA through the difficult aftermath of an incident in which three Apollo 1 astronauts lost their lives(opens in new tab) in a capsule fire on the ground.

Webb pushed for science to be prioritized in the Cold War environment, where every space mission was a political tool. He also promoted(opens in new tab) “psychological warfare(opens in new tab)” (or propaganda).

Webb left NASA in 1968(opens in new tab) before Apollo 11 flew to the moon. In later life, he served on various advisory boards and was involved with the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. flagship cluster of museums, education and research centers. He died in 1992.

Echoes of controversy

Space instruments are usually named via a consultation process, often with the public invited to contribute their ideas. It’s also not unusual for spacecraft names to be changed. For example, the 1991 Gamma Ray Observatory(opens in new tab) was renamed after physicist Arthur Holly Compton(opens in new tab) after its launch.

The Webb telescope’s name was reportedly chosen(opens in new tab) by NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe in 2002.

NASA’s official response(opens in new tab) to the controversy is that there is “no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the telescope”.

Whatever Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare, the question for some observers seems to come down to whether he was personally homophobic.

Framing the issue like this has echoes of another controversy: the complicity of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun(opens in new tab) in the Third Reich.

Von Braun, who was a member of the Nazi Party and an SS officer(opens in new tab), played a pivotal role in the US space program.

Today, NASA mentions von Braun’s Nazi past on its website(opens in new tab). But space historian Michael J. Neufeld says(opens in new tab) “his Nazi record was not widely known until after his death.”

Many excuse von Braun’s political allegiance by arguing he just wanted to launch rockets into space.


Where to from here?

The James Webb Space Telescope is a touchstone for issues that have come to the fore in recent times.

For example, there has been a backlash against the memorialization of colonial “heroes” who perpetrated violence against Indigenous and enslaved people, leading to statues all over the world being toppled(opens in new tab).

Some decry the idea of inclusivity as the ultimate in “wokeness.” Others argue maintaining historical barriers to participation in science — based on race, class, gender and disability — means we lose potential talent.

Science is meant to be objective and have no prejudice. In reality, scientists and science administrators are people like any others, with their own ideologies and flaws.

The question is whether we judge them by the standards of their time, or by those we hold today.

In the end, perhaps we should remember that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967(opens in new tab) proclaims that space belongs to all humanity.


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