I learned three disappointing things about NASA today. There’s been an ongoing kerfuffle over the name of the James Webb Space Telescope, because Webb presided over a remarkably homophobic culture at the agency. Now internal documents about the debate over naming it have been revealed.
Internal NASA documents obtained by Nature reveal fresh details about the agency’s investigation last year into whether to rename its flagship James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). A group of astronomers had led a community petition to change the name, alleging that the telescope’s namesake, former NASA chief James Webb, had been complicit in the persecution and firing of gay and lesbian federal employees during his career in the US government in the 1950s and 1960s.
I already knew all that. Those aren’t the new disappointments.
One was that this problem goes all the way back to 1969, when a judge ruled on a firing case.
Although the documents reveal that key decisions were made in meetings and not over e-mail, they still show agency officials wrestling with how to investigate the allegations and control public messaging over the controversy. As early as April 2021, an external researcher flagged wording from the 1969 court ruling to NASA officials. It came in the case of Clifford Norton, who had appealed against being fired from NASA for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct”. In the decision, the chief judge wrote that the person who had fired Norton had said that he was a good employee and asked whether there was a way to keep him on. Whomever he consulted in the personnel office told him that it was a “custom within the agency” to fire people for “homosexual conduct”.
“I think you will find this paragraph to be troubling,” wrote the external researcher to Eric Smith, the JWST’s programme scientist at NASA in Washington DC. “‘A custom within the agency’ sounds pretty bad.”
Troubling? You think? The NASA personnel office considered it customary to fire anyone exposed as gay?
That’s old news, you say. What isn’t old is how the modern agency carried out their investigation.
NASA staff stated that it would only be a problem if they found evidence that Webb was "overtly anti-gay". At one point, there was an informal survey to take the temperature of the astronomy community on the name change, which consisted of calling ~10 faculty who are not LGBTQ+
— Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz (@RocketToLulu) March 25, 2022
The second disappointment is that they contacted 10 straight astronomers who said discrimination against gay people wasn’t a problem, and that was part of their ultimate decision to bury the controversy. Does anyone else see a problem with their methodology?
And then the third surprise.
The revelations about NASA’s decision regarding the JWST come at a time of increasing concern over the way the agency handles issues of identity. Earlier this month, employees at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, were told that they would no longer be able to include pronouns, such as she/her or they/them, in their display names in agency computer systems. After the move was discussed on Reddit and the astronomy community reacted negatively on other social platforms, NASA put out a statement that employees could continue to include pronouns in their e-mail signature blocks.
How authoritarian of them. So this month the administrators were openly transphobic, while pretending that oh no, they were never ever homophobic? I don’t think I believe them, especially since they tried to hide their findings.
It’s extremely disappointing, if not unbelievable that 100% of randomly selected straight people said discrimination isn’t a problem.
A reasonable proportion of my social circle is relatively conservative, and I’d be surprised if any of them said that.
Yes, it is disappointing, but definitely not surprising.
I suspect that almost every US government administrator or manager from the fifties or early sixties exhibited similar disqualifying behavior. If they didn’t, they were probably removed from office themselves. (In that politicak era, being a homosexual in a government job was worse than being a Communist.)
And at NASA, with its sqeaky clean, all-American, militaristic, all white male image? Again, no surprise.
What I am surprised at: I’d assumed that Webb was principally a scientist/astronomer a la Hubble, and not an administrator.
Pierce R. Butler says
How about if we just call it “The Homophobic Space Telescope”?
Then you’ve ruled it out forever from any research involving the Jupiter-Ganymede relationship, for starters.
Erlend Meyer says
@mcfrank0 #2: That’s my general impression as well. And that’s the best argument against “canceling” Webb, this behavior was pretty much on par for the time.
Now I don’t give a f*ck about JW, and I suspect that few outside NASA or the astronomy field does either. If JW newer got his name on anything due to his past actions I doubt many would care. But having such an honor revoked is worse than never getting it in the first place…
“What I am surprised at: I’d assumed that Webb was principally a scientist/astronomer a la Hubble, and not an administrator.”
I totally get your sentiment here, and also the historical precedent that big space missions, if not named after mythological entities, would be named after prominent scientists, and not bureaucrats. However, despite my pen-name, I am actually an engineer. As an engineer, I am astonished by NASA’s success/failure rate in the 1960s was so good. That may be due to the fact that a pretty big chunk of the USA’s GDP was being thrown at the problem, but I’d still assume that good administration was a big part of the success. So, James Webb probably deserves a huge round of applause.
Nevertheless, we all have feet of clay, and rather than build another statue to Ozymandias, maybe we should stop naming projects after individuals.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
Not just telescopes, but genes, body parts, body functions, phenomena…
A hard thing about learning neurobiology (and more now that I think about it) for me was the arbitrary or territory-marking in names. I know there are limits in naming by function but the bodies that claim authority here can have a parade of middle fingers.
Since the culture and laws of that time don’t align with modern sensitivities, our first acknowledged president should be Lincoln, all monuments and other commemorative items destroyed.
That’ll get rid of a giant phallus in the National Mall, save a hell of a lot of money in other monuments, with the unfortunate effect of having only the penny and $5.00 bill, but who cares about unnecessary things like those?
Since renaming the space telescope is so contentious, just crash it into the moon, just as other commemorative items being contentious were destroyed. Don’t forget to blow the Hubble too, he supported similar and worse policies in his day.
The man swore an oath to uphold the laws and Constitution – as they stood at the time, not as anyone wants to revise history to read. Otherwise, our first president was Lincoln, the rest don’t exist and never did, any after that aren’t approved of also won’t have existed.
Because revisionist history is the solution, ancient erasure methods were ever so effective and lessons to be learned from history are non-existent.
Of course, we’ll retain the newest revisionist in chief, our former commandeer and thief, who Ginni Thomas has informed us is the King of Kings, the rightful emperor, who has done more for everyone marginalized than anyone in history, god-king emperor Trump.
Since revisionism is such a grand idea. Gotta give all revisionist, hide the past asshole times their chance to fuck things the rest of the way up!
Just someone be kind enough to shoot me first. I’ve no appetite for such a trip through the looking glass of revisionist history, for that is the path that’ll surely follow. It has in every other culture that did such things.
It’s a shame though, the US used to air our dirty laundry for all to see while we cleaned it up, now we’ll suppress any hint of imperfection.
It’s not the telescope that is (or was) homophobic. I’m sure it doesn’t care about human attitudes.
Let’s rename it for a historical figure, the way the Galileo or Cassini space probes were. I propose calling it the Giordano Bruno Space Telescope. Granted, he wasn’t an astronomer (or scientist of any type), but his philosophical musings about the extent of the universe (and how there must be more than Scripture said) seem appropriate for a device that’s intended to look back and out as far as theoretically possible.
I’m sure he had feet of clay and warts just like all of the other famous people from the past. I’m willing to excuse those in someone who died 400+ years ago.
Giordano Bruno had a talent for quarreling with everyone, so he is a good fit for current times.
bcw bcw says
How about just calling it the space disco ball heat camera after the images of bright swirling dots it produces.
The telescope itself will hopefully be a great asset to astronomy, physics, astrophysics, and a variety of other fields. It’s a shame that it will be tainted for some people because of a poor decision in naming it.
To be clear, I’m not blaming or criticizing people who don’t like the name. I just think the whole situation is unfortunate. If anything, it was a mistake to not change the name.
Rob Grigjanis says
Just call it Mirrory McMirrorface.
I’m excited about seeing the images, no matter what it’s called. But yes, do get James Webb off the name.
I kind of like the ring of “Big Gay Queeroscope.” Or if that’s perceived as homophobic, maybe the milder QEFTC: Queer Eye for the Cosmos.
I don’t know about the US, but at that time in Britain it was also customary to fire women as soon as they got married… “Congratulations! Here’s your P45.” In fact, it was typically a matter not just of custom, but of explicit, formally codified policy.
Brony@6– my favourite name in neuroanatomy is the Botzinger complex, part of the breathing control system. It was first described by Jack Feldman, who named it after the bottle of wine that was on his desk.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
So the wine complex?
Mine is the zona incerta, the “zone about which nothing is certain”. Is that really the case anymore?
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
Wikipedia has a self-refuting passage.
“Its function is unknown, though several potential functions related to “limbic–motor integration” have been proposed, such as controlling visceral activity and pain; gating sensory input and synchronizing cortical and subcortical brain rhythms.”
“Unknown”, except for more than nothing.
Also worth noting here is that the JWST is not just a NASA & ESA project but an international one involving several thousand scientists, engineers & others from 15 different countries – despite the scope being named for NASA’s 2nd administrator (1961-1968) James E Webb. (1906 – 1992) thus really not that representative.
Damn right, they should have changed the name and probly never named after Webb in the first place.
FWIW Space dot com has some good coverage of this with this news article here :
In other words before he had an official homophobic policy to shelter behind Webb was honmophobic. Okay, typical of that era sure but still pretty fn bad.
That also notes :
So it was badly handled and space dot com also has this latest news article on it as well :
If folks are interested which hopefully they are..
As for new names for the JWST as I’m going to call it until the name change then there’s a few good possibilitries here :
With the Divine Space telescope after Stellar and Planetary Astrophysicist Neil Divine seeming particularly apt!
Or, maybe, as a nod to Hubble’s work and that era they could go with the Henrietta Swan Leavitt telescope for the woman who discovered the period-luminosity law for Cepheid variables the “standard candle” stars that showed us that the spiral “nebulae” as they were then called were really “island universes” or galaxies as we now call them.
Or perhaps as a non-human tribute to the past we could rename the JWST after the Muse of Astronomy – Urania.
(I’m sure that won’t provoke any assinine jokes will it?)
PS. That last one is not really a serious suggestion despite its aptness because yeah.
See also :
Also of Christian poetry too.Huh. Didn’t know that. Wonder if Polyhymnia (Muse of Sacred Poetry) will be jealous of that as the more obvious choice Muses-wise as well as Thalia (pastoral poetry -and comedy) & Erato. (Love poetry & lyruic poetry)
OTOH, atleats they’re tacitly admitting that Christian poetry isn’t epic! (Calliope – probly spelled witha K inoriginall Greek sowonder if linke dtothemusical instrument..?)
Yeah I had to wikicheck that list : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muses
For my more serious suggestion of Henrietta Swan Leavitt see wikibasics :
Although there are somany different and better posisble names. hell, they could even do their frequent contrived and convoluted acronymn game and call it something like the Whopping <B.Hexagonal Large < Astronomical metaphorically Eagle-eyed space teelscope or something..
To go along with the proposed Very Large Telescope, Extremely Large telescope and OverWhelmingly Large Telescope convention..
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
“Nothing” might be too hard for “incerta” but still…
Not a neuro structure but there’s the innominate artery, literally the “unnamed artery.” And as I’m fond of pointing out to students, the foramen magnum is just Latin for “the big hole.”
Sigh. Clarifying fixes becoz I cannot fn type or preview properly, mea culpa. :
OTOH, at least they’re tacitly admitting that Christian poetry isn’t epic! (Calliope – probly spelled with a K in the original Greek so wonder if linked to the musical instrument..?)
Although there are so many different and better possible names.
Call it something like the Whopping Hexagonal Large Astronomical metaphorically Eagle-eyed space telescope (WHALE) or something..
NB. There are some serious stretches when it comes to NASA acronymn names..
@ 7. wzrd1 : WTF?! Seriously dude?
None of that follows from just changing the flippin’ name of something.
Nobody is saying ignore history – quite the reverse lets take it seriously and recognise that it had its metaphorical warts and then not celebrate and glorify those warts.
Its certainly not the telescope’s fault that the people it was named for might have been pretty horrible people -as Hubble arguably was (although citation needed on Edwin Hubble’s homophobia though wouldn’t surprise me in the least) and yeah, homophobe Webb who was a bigot before he went to NASA as well as during the McCarthyist-like “Lavender scare”.No one (other than you it seems?) is seriously remotely saying that the scope itself should be destroyed just renamed to honour people that deserve honouring a lot more.
Like say Giordano Bruno or Henrietta Swan Leavitt or not people but abstracts ideas or myths etc..
So that paragraph of yours is just ridiculuously Over The Top Hyperbole that might work as sarcastic mockery of the people who’d actually argue something like that but NOT as serious opinion of anybody reasonable.
Pretty sure the USA’s Constitution says absolutely nothing about LGBTQUIA people or them being barred from working. Laws at the time of America’s founding legalised slavery of course along with other things we now rightly find abhorrent and we should recognise that those laws were wrong and honour thsoe who fought to change them not support them.
That is a literal non-sequiteur, it just does not follow at all form the premises here. This isn’t the Papacy where we have Popes change to anti-Popes because the authority doesn’t want to recognise them. Incidentally, there are arguments and evidence that at least a few POTUS’es were actually queer :
Including JFK, Alexander Hamilton and James Buchanan.
To say that people don’t or didn’t exist just because they don’t get a space telescope named for them or a statute of them gets taken down is just absurd literal non-sense.
Incomprehensible word salad there and a very unappetising one at that. Huh? Care to rephrase that into comprehensible english for clarity?
Likewise. Same applies. Who the? What the?! Are you referring to there & why?
Its not about hiding the past – quite the opposite. It is about NOT white-washing it and facing the nastier aspects of it and admitting those aspects were indeed, nasty and unjust and unacceptable in a modern era when we know better and then NOT honouring the worst of those eras.
You think that means “fucking up things” do you? How and why exactly?
Those “Hide the past assholes” are really those who want to pretend history is actually magnolia-tinted myth and all the founders were perfect semi-divine beings and ignore the injustices that make them uncomfortable and not teach history at least not as actual real history or through perspectives that make their idols seem less than idyllic.
So you’d literally rather die than face uncomfortable historical realities and see an end to the glorification of evil people? Seriously?
No, I wouldn’t shoot you. I’d like you to live and see things change for the better. Just as I want to live and see things change for the better & reckon we should all work together to achieve that.
Also which cultures specifically? Your extraordinary evidence for that extraordinary claim is required as per Sagan’s Standard.
Er, you mean like ignoring a certain historic NASA administartors homophobic bigotry and keeping his name on a space telescope as an honour anyhow?
wzrd1, quite seriously you really disappoint me here. I gues you won’t give a toss but I honestly expected and thought much better of you than this reveals.
@8 . woodsong : Good suggestion there with Giordano Bruno and historical figures – the Galilei Galileo SpaceTelescope would also sounds like a really good idea to me (Copernicus already being taken) using the full version to differentiate it from the eponymous spaceprobe sent to Jupiter.
@ PaulBC : “I kind of like the ring of “Big Gay Queeroscope.” Or if that’s perceived as homophobic, maybe the milder QEFTC: Queer Eye for the Cosmos.”
Thread very nearly won.. LOL! Yes.
@ 3. Pierce R. Butler
Galilei Galileo SpaceTelescope – GGST for short.
If it’s to be renamed, another female astronomer I think is worthy of honor would be Annie Jump Cannon. From Wikipedia:
Also, she has possibly the coolest name ever. Think of it: the Annie Jump Cannon ‘Scope.
John Morales says
It’s just a name.
(The label doesn’t [shouldn’t] obscure the thing labelled)
@ 25 StevoR
Nah – he got cancelled for locking his illegitimate daughters up for life in a convent and never visiting. ;-)
Plus, by contemporary accounts, Galileo’s telescope was extremely difficult to see anything through, so… maybe not.
@ 27 John Morales
Thanks, John. When people ask what “privilege” means we’ll have your comment to point to.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
And forget Nerve 0, I’m privately starting with that at 1 with 2 olfactory nerve pairs first followed by the optic nerve.
John Morales says
My privilege is that I can distinguish between a label and the thing to which the label refers.
(Such a privilege!)
From now on, I’m calling it the Dr. Frank Kameny Space Telescope.
Cue bigots saying, “he never accomplished anything as an astronomer!” Yeah, because he was railroaded out of and denied a career in astronomy for being gay.
That was in 1958. Being an atheist and opposing racism likely also made him a target of harassment.
If its any consolation, once everyone has stopped discussing the name of the telescope, regardless of whether it fails tomorrow or goes on to have an illustrious 20+ year career making amazing new discoveries about the early universe, the vast majority of humanity still won’t know who James Webb was, and nor will they care.
Walter Solomon says
Why did this discussion take so long to have? The name of the telescope has been publically known for well over a decade. Why wait until the thing launches to start discussing its name?
Big Infrared Telescope?
Or name it after some known homosexual astronomer, like just about any of the old greek ones.
So… JWST isn’t really much of a rename. And while all the others sound amusing, I think the simplest way to actively combat the naming scheme is to call it the 2nd space telescope. Pretty much everyone will know what you mean. You won’t have to explain anything. So it’s a name that might actually get some traction if a bunch of people refer to it that way. It’s not controvertial in any way so even if people don’t particularly care about LGBT+ issues they won’t be bothered by the name. Which makes it exactly the sort of name NASA should have come up with in the first place so screw ’em if they don’t like it.
@Walter Solomon : They didn’t. Concerns about the name were raised quite a while before its launch. As this petition requesting the name be changed notes :
That same petition also makes an interesting suggestion for an alternative name for the JWST :
The petition itself was done in May last year – many months before the launch. See :
But as noted above, concerns about glorifying Webb were known years earlier. Just because we didn’t necessarily hear about it until closer to launch doesn’t mean there weren’t objections much earlier.
There was also this article :
By Scientific American published on the 1st March and clearly there were already concerns about the name then.
Incidentally, it isn’t unprecedented for names of NASA spacecraft to be changed or at least added to after the mission has launched or, even, been extended see the NEAR-Shoemaker mission to the asteroid Eros as the Deep Impact -EXPOXI mission to comet Hartley 2.
Walter Solomon says
Thanks for the reply. I read about the JWST in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s book Welcome to the Universe in 2016. From what I remember, the only thing he said about the name is that the choice was likely bureaucratic or something along those lines. He really didn’t get into the controversy surrounding the name at all.
I’ve been following the development of the telescope for years now, though admittedly not very closely, and I’m only hearing about the controversy this year.
Alex Cassell says
Yea, if you want to continue to cry about everything that does not go your way. You see the world snapping back? People like you are the reason people like DeSantis are winning in politics. People like you are why we have people like Trump winning elections. All of this crying about everything, not matter how silly it is..
This type of nonsense has lost you more supporter than it has won you..
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
@Alex Cassell 39
Nonsense? Everything when it is specific things?
Thank you. Now I know who is an unreliable ally worth abandoning. You are willing to lie about the complaints of others and deserve shaming.
PZ Myers says
I forgot. This is like a video game where your goal is to get the highest possible score.
Have you ever considered that maybe I’d like to see people like you fuck off and never read my blog again?
@ Alex Cassell : Citatiosn and evidence needed.
Or F off.
Guessing you were doing a drive by anyhow but still
You think this is “siily” – why?
You think DeSantis is “winning” do you? Winning what exactly and with what consequences and at what cost?
PS. You do know Trump lost right?
Twice really when you accept that all Americans deserve their say over who gets to be POTUS equally &the Electroal College is an undemocratic, (what’sthe word again?Oh yeah..) abomination.
One vote, 1 value. Why not?
@38. Walter Solomon : Thanks & no worries.
In the Chinese space program, the vehicles/satellites were originally named after real people, eg from the Mao era. But after the Mao-era disasters they realized naming it after people was a bad idea, and switched to a more neutral poetic naming scheme.
It seems pretty nice to me: Many of the names use the mythic/poetic word 神 (something like, heavenly, or divine), eg the “divine arrow” (a rocket), “divine light” (a laser system), or 天 (something like sky,heavenly,), eg “heavenly/sky palace” (space station).
I guess it’s like using greek/roman mythology, but even more generic (no specific myth is referenced) while still interesting/inspiring – you have to puzzle out what it is from the name.
Rob Grigjanis says
Good idea. How about Watcher of the Skies?
If it has to be a name, Lagrange would do.
Any chance we can rename it the Mazel Tough – Jewish Space Laser.
It seems unlilkely that the JWST will be renamed now but it reading the link here :
seems it’s still a possiblity after all. Here’s hoping..
@ ^ erichoug
Sorry, thought I’d added your nymn there too.