Ask Dr. SETI ®
on the name of JWST
by Prof. Jason Wright, Penn State University
The name of JWST, the James Webb Space Telescope is in the news again.
As I write this, I’m told the release of a NASA report on James Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare and the firing of LGBT NASA employees is about to become public. I’ve been involved in this because I sit as an ally on SGMA, the committee which advises the American Astronomical Society on LGBTQ+ issues. On this committee, I was lead on the issue of learning about what NASA was doing about this. I spoke with the Acting NASA Chief Historian, Brian Odom, about his research on this.
Below is how I see it. If you think we should keep the name, please read the following with an open mind. Note, some of what appears below was drafted in collaboration with other SGMA members, as part of our recommendation to the AAS.
The name of the telescope really matters, and we need to get it right
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has shown that the name of NASA’s flagship observatories can become synonymous with astronomical discovery and gain deep resonance and symbolism among both astronomers and the public at large. Astronomers tout the discoveries of Hubble in interviews and public talks, they festoon their laptops and backpacks with Hubble mission patches and stickers, and some of the most talented young astronomers bear the title “Hubble Fellow.” For many members of the public, the Hubble Space Telescope may be the only scientific instrument or laboratory they can name.
Since JWST is in many ways a successor to HST, and is likely to occupy a similarly important role in astronomy and the public’s perception of the field, it is especially important that its name be appropriate, that it inspire, and that be something everyone who works on and with it can be proud of.
Despite this, NASA gave the telescope an uninspiring name
When the name was announced, there was a distinct sense of confusion and disappointment in the community. “Who’s that?” was the refrain.
I and many others sort of accepted it because we didn’t really think too hard about it, but it’s a huge missed opportunity. The name doesn’t inspire. When people ask for why it’s called that, most astronomers shrug and say “he was the NASA administrator during the Apollo era” and move on to the next topic. It’s a name only a NASA administrator could love.
This isn’t to say that administrators don’t do important things that should be acknowledged! Administration is hard and good administration is so valuable it absolutely should be celebrated. And perhaps if his legacy were different astronomers would celebrate his name and be glad to see his name on this telescope.
But the name just has no resonance here.
Despite this, NASA named the telescope with no input from stakeholders
NASA’s international partners were not involved in the decision. Astronomers were not involved in the decision. The people who built it were not involved in the decision. Lawmakers and policymakers were not involved in the decision. Elected officials were not involved in the decision.
The name was poorly chosen, and does not reflect NASA’s (purported) values
The decision was made by one NASA administrator, to name the telescope after another NASA administrator, and this name has been stubbornly kept by a third NASA administrator.
This is bad precedent, and the current fallout is a great illustration of why. In James Webb’s NASA, gay employees were fired. Clifford Norton was arrested, interrogated, and fired.
This is not the organization that today’s NASA aspires to be (we hope!).
It’s not too late to change it
NASA changes the names of space telescopes and missions all the time. It‘s very common for things to have boring names on the ground (AXAF, SIRTF) and inspiring names once they’re working (Chandra, Spitzer). We all adjust. It’s not a big deal.
At this point, NASA’s resistance has gone from stubbornness to recalcitrance. Already, NASA employees are refusing to use the name in prominent publications. The Royal Astronomical Society says it expects authors of MNRAS not to use the name. The American Astronomical Society has twice asked the administrator to reopen the naming process (and received no response!). This is an error that only grows as NASA refuses to fix it.
NASA needs to think about the people using the telescope
Think for a moment about the LGBT NASA employees working on JWST today. They want to be proud of their work, proud of the telescope, proud as LGBT NASA employees.
But just to use the name of the telescope is to name a man who, undisputedly would have had them fired. This feels perverse to me.
Right now, the premier fellowship in astronomy is the Hubble Fellowship. When Hubble finally goes, will it become the Webb Fellowship? If you advise students, how would you feel recommending an LGBT student apply for that fellowship? How would you feel when they tell you they’re uncomfortable attaching the name of someone who undisputedly would have fired them to their career, to their CV, to their job title?
This, of course, isn’t just a “gay issue”. We all have LGBT colleagues, friends, and family. Beyond that, we want astronomy, space, and NASA to be inclusive and inspiring in all ways. What precedent does this whole fiasco set for that future we seek?
The telescope deserves a better name. Astronomy deserves to have a telescope that reflects our values. America and the world deserve a telescope that inspires. Even those who are defending Webb have to concede the current name is not doing those things.
Let’s do better. Why not?
All that said, there is a lot of interest in the specific accusations of homophobia and bigotry by Webb. I’m pretty sure that will be the focus of the NASA report that’s about to come out and of most of the ensuing discussion.
I think this is a distraction. Now, the evidence seems to indicate that, at the very least, he did not see enough humanity in LGBT people needed to protect them from unjust policies. But regardless, his bigotry is not part of my argument for changing the name. (That said, if there is some sort of smoking gun document revealing his personal involvement in these firings or personal animosity towards gay people, that makes the case even stronger).
And even though they are beside my point, I find most of the defenses of Webb lacking. Here are some common ones I see and hear:
This isn’t James Webb on trial. I’m not basing my argument on his being a nasty bigot, because even if he wasn’t we should still rename the telescope.
The standards for putting someone’s name on the most important scientific instrument of a generation should be very high, and there’s no shame in not having your name on it.
But what if he was, in his heart, not a bigot and actually worked behind the scenes in undocumented ways to minimize the Lavender Score? I think, given the balance of evidence, that this is unlikely, but just to entertain the logical possibility: in that case I’m sorry his legacy is caught in the middle of this and I’m sure this is infuriating for his family and people who respected him a lot, but this is much bigger than James Webb and his legacy. Again, this is not “James Webb on trial”; it’s “what should we name the telescope?”
Wasn’t Webb just a “man of his time”? Why should we judge people in the past by standards of today?
This argument all but concedes he was a bigot, which is enough to rename the telescope. But, entertaining it:
First of all, plenty of people at the time understood that sexual orientation had no bearing on one’s ability to work at NASA. Most LGBT people understood that, for starters.
Secondly, the argument that it made them susceptible to blackmail to foreign adversaries and so it was objectively reasonable to fire them is not as strong as it looks. After all, one way to fix that problem is to make it absolutely clear to employees that if they are outed, they won’t lose their livelihood. Every fired gay employee is a gift to potential blackmailers, handing them leverage over other closeted employees on a silver platter.
But even granting he was a man of his time, this argument completely fails.
Of course we are judging the namesake of the telescope by today’s standards. Why would we choose any other? We are here today, with the telescope of today. Its name should reflect today’s standards! Why wouldn’t it?
Don’t you worry that people of the future will “cancel” great people from our time for moral lapses by future standards?
I don’t worry about that at all. If I end up (in)famous for something and people in the year 2500 spit after saying my name because I ate meat from slaughtered livestock, which they consider an unspeakable evil—well, that makes sense right? Why would you celebrate people who lived lives antithetical to your values?
Firing LGBT people at State and NASA was the law of the land at the time. There’s little he could have done and he wasn’t directly involved anyway.
If we concede that he was just doing his job, then we also concede away the only good argument for naming the telescope after him. James Webb did not design or build the Saturn V rockets, he did not calculate the trajectories of the capsules, he did not walk on the Moon. He was a (by all accounts highly effective) administrator who oversaw those things.
If he gets credit for the good things that happened on his watch obviously he should get demerits for the bad.
There’s no evidence he’s a bigot. His heart wasn’t in firing LGBT people the way it was in, for instance, integrating NASA.
There’s a double standard at play where simply listing his (very impressive!) accomplishments at NASA is sufficient for justifying the name, but when it comes to bad things happening on his watch we need some sort of smoking gun, evidence of mensrea, to understand where his heart was on the matter.
Anyone demanding evidence of his bigotry should be ready to put forward evidence of his personal virtues on other items, not just lists of things good happening on his watch.
OK: James Webb went above and beyond to integrate NASA. He gave an impassioned speech about it.
Based on what I’ve seen, we really don’t know his views on race. We do know that Johnson charged him with using NASA as a lever to integrate the South. We do know he was a loyal foot soldier who understood the assignment and got it done. It’s unclear to me what extracurricular activities he was doing to promote racial equality.
But isn’t every name problematic? Everyone in the past had something that people today will object to.
First of all, I’m sure we can find people who didn’t have a demonstrated track record of ruining innocent people’s lives like Webb’s NASA did.
Secondly, the onus of solving the problem of what the perfect name is should not be on the people pointing out the current problem! This is a great question and one that obviously needs addressing before we name a project as important as JWST. NASA should put together a process for addressing it, which means reconsidering the name of the telescope!
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this page last updated 5 November 2022
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