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Watch live: NASA shares the first images from the James Webb Telescope

Final tests of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield at Northrop Grumman in California in December 2020.
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Dennis goodbye

Recognition…Scan by Mike Acs

In 2002, Sean O’Keefe, then NASA Administrator, announced that the agency’s next telescope would be named after James Webb, who headed NASA in the 1960s as it prepared to put people on the moon land. He was a staunch advocate of space science.

Some astronomers were disappointed that it would not be named after an astronomer, while others objected on more serious grounds, namely that Mr. Webb bore some responsibility for an event during the Truman administration known as the Lavender Scare that was used to purge gays and lesbian State Department official. At that time Mr. Webb had been secretary of state.

This topic gained prominence a year ago when four astronomers — Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Brian Nord of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Chicago, and Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington – published a comment in Scientific American, “The James Webb Space Telescope needs to be renamed.”

NASA said it will investigate the claims and release a report. Subsequently, last September, Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator and former Florida senator, announced that he saw no need to change the name. No report was ever published, which infuriated critics.

In March after the launch of the telescope Nature magazine reported based on FOIA requests NASA took the allegations so seriously that Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics at the time, wrote to outside astronomers asking if he should change the telescope’s name. The answer was no, but he did not speak to any LGBTQ astronomers.

The magazine also reported on notes from the Clifford Norton case. He had been fired from NASA in 1963 – during Mr. Webb’s tenure – for being gay, and the archival materials alluded to “a custom in the agency” of firing people for homosexual activity. Mister. Norton appealed and won a landmark case against such discrimination in 1969.

In November 2021, NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee asked the agency for a more comprehensive report.

Mister. O’Keefe, the former administrator, defended his choice in an email.

“If it weren’t for James Webb’s determination to realize the boldest vision of his time, our research capacity today would probably be vastly different,” said Mr. O’Keefe.

But that wasn’t enough for the critics. “If he’s not responsible for the bad things that happened during his tenure, then why is he responsible for the good things?” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said. “It seems like there’s a bit of thought going on here, where people put him in charge of the things they like about his heritage and act like he’s only responsible for the things they like.”

“If our telescopes are going to be named after people, they should be named after people who inspire us to be our better selves,” said Dr. Added Prescod Weinstein.

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