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NASA rejects petition to rename $10bn James Webb telescope amid claims he discriminated against gays


NASA has announced that they will not rename the James Webb Telescope ahead of its launch in December, despite a petition against honoring a space pioneer who many now see as homophobic.

James Webb was the second administrator of NASA. He presided over the agency from 1961-68, at a vital time for the early days of space exploration. But in recent years his legacy has been questioned

Webb, who died in 1992 aged 85, was the second administrator in NASA’s history, taking over on the request of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

He ran the agency until 1968 and was instrumental in the Apollo programs that would see, the year after his departure, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

Yet in recent years the 2002 decision to name a $10 billion new telescope after Webb has stirred criticism.

Webb has been accused of being homophobic after his role in the 1963 firing of a gay NASA employee was raised. Questions were also asked about his participation in a 1950-52 ‘Lavender Scare’, when he was at the State Department, and 91 gay people were ‘purged’.

But on September 30 Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said they had decided against renaming the telescope.

‘We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,’ he told NPR

The James Webb Telescope is seen being assembled for the first time. The $10 billion telescope, 100 times more powerful than Hubble, will be launched in December

The James Webb Telescope is seen being assembled for the first time. The $10 billion telescope, 100 times more powerful than Hubble, will be launched in December

The James Webb telescope is so large it will need to be folded inside the rocket, and then unfold once it is in orbit

The James Webb telescope is so large it will need to be folded inside the rocket, and then unfold once it is in orbit

Technicians and scientists check out one of the Webb telescope's first two flight mirrors in the clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Technicians and scientists check out one of the Webb telescope’s first two flight mirrors in the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Nelson’s decision has angered those who campaigned for the renaming of the $10 billion telescope, described by NASA as the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space. 

‘It will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe,’ NASA promise.

The telescope will be launched into orbit in December 18 after 25 years of work by 1,200 scientists, technicians, and engineers from 14 countries.

It is seen as an upgrade to the Hubble telescope, and it 100 times more powerful: it is so large it will fold, origami-style, to fit in the rocket, NASA say, and will unfold ‘like a Transformer’ in space.

Webb’s actions have been the subject of intense debate.

Webb is seen standing next to Kennedy as he presents the medal for distinguished federal civil service to Dr Robert R. Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center. Astronauts Alan Shepard (far left) and John Glenn (second left) look on

Webb is seen standing next to Kennedy as he presents the medal for distinguished federal civil service to Dr Robert R. Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center. Astronauts Alan Shepard (far left) and John Glenn (second left) look on

Webb is photographed at a NASA press conference in 1962 in Washington DC

Webb is photographed at a NASA press conference in 1962 in Washington DC

Was James Webb homophobic?

Webb’s importance to the U.S. space program is unquestioned, but his attitudes have caused significant debate.

His critics say he should not be honored when so many pioneers are ignored – particularly women and people of color. His supporters say he was a product of his time, and his actual involvement in the cases associated with him is contested.   

Webb was in the State Department during the 1950-52 so-called ‘Lavender Scare’, when 91 homosexuals were forced from their jobs. 

At the time it was illegal for gays to serve in the civil service, and being gay was seen as amoral. Gay people were often viewed as a target for blackmail.

Webb’s defenders say there is no evidence for his actions during the Lavender Scare.

 

Webb speaks at the White House in 1963, with Kennedy to his right and Lyndon B. Johnson to his left

Webb speaks at the White House in 1963, with Kennedy to his right and Lyndon B. Johnson to his left

Webb is also criticized for presiding over the firing of Clifford L. Norton in 1963, who was arrested by the Washington DC ‘Morals Squad’. 

NASA accused him of ‘immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct’.

But Webb’s supporters say that, as administrator of the agency, he would not have been involved in the firing of a low-level budget administrator. Furthermore, when Norton successfully sued for wrongful dismissal in 1969, Webb was not named at all in the case.

Trained as a lawyer, he was undersecretary of state in the State Department in the 1950s when there was concern that homosexuals were ‘deviants’ who, banned from serving in the civil service, could be open to blackmail.

Under direction from President Harry Truman, a purge of gay people was conducted, which became known as the Lavender Scare – 91 State Department employees lost their jobs.

Yet Webb’s supporters – among them the team behind Chasing the Moon, the PBS documentary – point out that there was no evidence of Webb’s direct involvement in the Lavender Scare.

Webb was also at the State Department when the idea of psychological warfare was introduced. 

A more troubling case is that of Clifford L. Norton, a NASA budget administrator, who was arrested by the Washington DC ‘Morals Squad’ in 1963, and was subsequently fired for being gay.

NASA accused him of ‘immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct’.

Norton sued in 1969 and won a landmark case, which outlawed forbidding homosexuals from serving in the civil service.

Webb was the NASA administrator at the time, and so has been held responsible for the firing.

Yet his backers say that he would not have been involved in the firing of a low-level employee like Norton. 

Furthermore, the Chasing the Moon team point out that Webb’s name was never mentioned in the 1969 case, which was brought against the head of the civil service, John Macy.

The organizers of the petition against Webb’s honoring with the telescope were angered by the decision to proceed.

‘NASA has decided to keep the name (Picked by a past NASA administrator to…change the tradition of naming space telescopes after scientists and honor another administrator?) – and “announced” it by leaking a barely there statement to limited journalists,’ said Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist who created the petition with three others.

‘This morning I am especially heartbroken because I’m spending the next two days attending the National NASA Space Grant Meeting.

‘What a slap in the face, on the day that starts this meeting, to tell folks “Thanks for bringing minoritized folks up through the ranks – We don’t actually care how our decisions impact them. Not even enough to reply to their questions.”

‘NASA is relying on cowardice & poor PR technique to leak that they will not be renaming the JWST, named after a career administrator who oversaw homophobic persecution & development of psychological warfare, ignoring the request for reconsideration from 1200 astronomers.’ 

The astronauts known as the Mercury Seven are seen in 1964 listening to Webb at the podium. Left To Right: Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra, Donald Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grisson, John Glenn, Alan Shepard

The astronauts known as the Mercury Seven are seen in 1964 listening to Webb at the podium. Left To Right: Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra, Donald Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grisson, John Glenn, Alan Shepard



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