A composite image shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its namesake, former NASA Administrator James Webb. Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

While the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) quietly peers at infrared radiation in space to reveal more layers of cosmic history, a controversy about its namesake simmers a million miles back home on Earth, where a movement is afoot to have the telescope’s name changed. 

James E. Webb ran NASA as its second Administrator from 1961 to 1968, in the midst of the Apollo program, which sought to land humans on the moon. Earlier in Webb’s civil service career, he served as Undersecretary of State from 1949 to 1952 for President Harry Truman.

Webb’s State Department tenure occurred during a decadeslong period when government officials fired or forced the resignations of thousands of federal employees in an era later dubbed the “lavender scare” by writer David K. Johnson in a 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

Webb’s association with the wholesale dismissal of so many employees because of their sexual orientation prompted a movement to rename the telescope, which was originally called the NASA Next Generation Space Telescope.

The JWST is the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA led the development of the telescope, and it was a former NASA administrator who secured Webb as the telescope’s namesake. 

In a Scientific American opinion piece from March 2021, four astronomers – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington, Lucianne Walkowicz of JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium, and Brian Nord of Fermilab and University of Chicago – expressed dismay that NASA named this new telescope for a man “whose legacy at best is complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.”

They wrote: “The name of such an important mission, which promises to live in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should be a reflection of our highest values. James Webb’s legacy is the antithesis of the dreaming and sense of freedom inspired by the exploration of deep time and distant space.”

Because they had been “outed,” many who lost their jobs during the lavender scare weren’t hired to work in their chosen careers again; some were so devastated, they committed suicide.

Even if Webb didn’t fire these workers himself, Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord wrote that he nonetheless bears responsibility for destructive policies enacted under his leadership and is therefore unworthy of the telescope honor.

This purge of gay men and women from government jobs coincided with the anti-communist “witch hunt” known as the Red Scare, instigated by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. The Red Scare stoked a nationwide paranoia of communism that McCarthy extended to fears about sexuality, portraying this group as national security threats who might be vulnerable to blackmail by foreign agents. 

Congressional investigators and government reports also used derisive and demeaning language and in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which effectively rationalized the firings.

Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord launched an online petition demanding that NASA change the telescope’s name. Currently, more than 1,700 people from around the world have signed the petition, most of them astronomy students, university professors, engineers, researchers and “astronomy enthusiasts.”  At least two dozen signers have NASA-related jobs and 143 had applied for research time on the telescope at the time they signed.

Prescod-Weinstein, Tuttle, Walkowicz and Nord – who describe themselves as “future users of NASA’s next-generation space telescope”– proposed an alternative honoree for JWST: Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor who used the North Star and other celestial coordinates to navigate herself and fellow enslaved people to freedom under cover of darkness.

The Harriet Tubman Space Telescope, they wrote, would serve as a reminder that the night sky – which gave hope to Tubman and others – belongs to everyone. “We should name telescopes out of love for those who came before us and led the way to freedom,” they wrote, “and out of love for those who are coming up after.”

Last September, NASA reported to National Public Radio that it had opened an investigation into Webb, but ultimately concluded that his name would remain on the telescope.

“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told NPR. Not long after, Walkowicz resigned in protest from the NASA Astrophysics Advisory committee, vowing not to use the telescope’s current name; many supporters of the name change have followed suit and refer to it only as JWST.

Related: Northwestern astrophysics professor Allison Strom tracks down galactic DNA using spectrographs from the James Webb Space Telescope.  

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...