NASA said the historic review of procedures by former administrator James Webb confirmed its decision to keep the agency’s flagship space telescope in his name.
On November 18, NASA released an 89-page report by the agency’s chief historian, Brian Odom, reviewing allegations that Webb, first at the State Department and later at NASA, was directly involved in firing employees based on their sexual orientation. These claims have led several astronomers to call on NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope.
Odom concluded that the study found no evidence to support these claims. “In conclusion, to date, there is no evidence available that directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the shooting of individuals because of their sexual orientation,” he said in the report.
NASA said in October 2021 that its initial review of the historical record found no evidence to support claims Webb fired LGBTQ+ employees. However, at the time NASA did not provide a detailed report supporting this conclusion. Astronomers, including the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, have pressed NASA to release a report, a process that has been delayed by historical archives that had recently reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report reviewed two specific allegations. One was that Webb, as Deputy Under-Secretary of State in 1950, agreed to fire LGBTQ+ employees of the State Department during the “Lavender Scare”. Odom concluded that the historical record showed that Webb was primarily concerned with restricting access to State Department personnel records from congressional investigations.
The other was in 1963, when Webb was director of NASA. The acting budget analyst, Clifford Norton, was arrested and later fired because of his sexual orientation. Norton later sued the Civil Service Commission, a case that helped overturn Civil Service policies that allowed such dismissal.
Odom concluded that Webb was likely unaware of the Norton affair. In the report he states: “As the policy was accepted across the government, it was very likely – though, unfortunately – that the shooting was not exceptional.”
In the statement, NASA said the report’s conclusions confirmed its earlier decision not to rename JWST. “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
But the report and statement have denounced discrimination in the past. “For decades, discrimination against LGBTQI+ federal employees was not only tolerated, but shamefully promoted by federal policies. The Lavender horror in the aftermath of World War II is a painful part of the story,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement. America and the fight for LGBT rights.”
It seemed unlikely that the report’s conclusions would be accepted by at least some astronomers who are critical of naming JWST after James Webb. In a November 18 statement, four astronomers who led the JWST renaming effort — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Lucien Wojkovic, Sarah Tuttle and Brian Nord — said they had not yet read the report, but believed it focused too narrowly on those specific cases. . .
They wrote that the report “seems to answer the question ‘Is there conclusive physical evidence that James Webb knows about Clifford Norton and his case? ‘” This is a separate question from, “Was James Webb, as administrator, responsible for the activities of the agency he led?” They said they had difficulty believing that, as administrator at NASA, Webb was unaware of Clifford’s firing.
They concluded, “Webb ultimately has a complicated legacy at best”. “His activities have not earned him a $10 billion memorial.”
It’s not clear what the next steps will be for those who oppose naming the JWST after Webb. In October, the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) announced that it would require authors submitting their papers to its journals to refer to the telescope only as JWST and not spell it out, as required by other acronyms. The RAS said this policy will be in effect until the results of the landmark investigation are published.
RAS Deputy Executive Director Robert Massey told SpaceNews on November 19 that he plans to present the report to the organization’s board of directors at its next meeting on December 9.
However, there were few indications that criticism of the JWST name had extended beyond the astronomical community. The House Science Committee’s Space Subcommittee held a hearing Nov. 16 on early results from JWST, with Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, among those testifying. While panelists asked questions about lessons learned from the development and technical issues of the JWST, no one during the 90-minute hearing raised the controversy over its name.
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