James Webb ran NASA in the 1950s and ’60s during the Cold War’s “Lavender Scare” era, when government agencies frequently enforced policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal employees. For this reason, astronomers and others have long been demanding that NASA change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s alleged role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This afternoon, NASA released the long-awaited report from the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials clarified that the agency would not be changing the telescope’s name, writing, “Based on the available evidence, the agency has no plans to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report makes clear that this period in federal politics — and in broader American history — was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”
Odom was tasked with finding what, if any, evidence links Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Uncovering evidence for controversial 60-year-old events was a difficult subject to study, Odom says, but he had ample material to draw from at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.
Those allegations include that of NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired in 1963 after he was seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, his lawsuit states, and NASA security forces subsequently took him to agency headquarters and interrogated him throughout the night. He was later fired from his job.
Such treatment of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian was commonplace after President Dwight Eisenhower issued a 1953 executive order listing “sexual perversion” among behaviors considered suspicious. Still, the NASA report states: “No evidence was found that Webb knew of Norton’s firing at the time. As this was accepted policy throughout government, the dismissal was most likely – albeit unfortunately – not seen as exceptional.”
NASA’s report and announcement frustrates critics who have advocated changing JWST’s name for years. “Webb has a complicated legacy at best, including his involvement in promoting psychological warfare. His activities have not earned him a $10 billion memorial,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists wrote in a statement today on Substack. They question the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb was unaware of, or filed, firings in his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we must assume that he was relatively incompetent as a manager.” was: the administrator of NASA should know if his chief of security is interrogating people extrajudicially.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this publication — Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday — is not coincidence, but a way of reading the report less widely. “The fact that they did it even though it’s LGBT STEM day says something about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He ran the agency as it advanced the space program toward the moon landing and promoted astronomy research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.
Though agency officials have made the call to keep Webb’s name, Odom says, “We should still use this story as an example of a past that has been traumatic for a lot of people.” That past, whatever Webb’s role in it, is important to us for the future.”
That NASA chose not to rename the telescope is “not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy . Whether Webb knew about Norton’s treatment or whether there’s evidence of it isn’t really relevant, Danner argues, since Webb, as NASA administrator, stood for those guidelines. “It’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”