NASA has announced the release of the James Webb History Report, a document detailing their investigation of the eponymous Next Generation Space Telescope that went into space on December 25, 2021. Months before its launch, the observatory became subject of controversy when it was revealed that Webb was involved in the so-called “Lavender Scare”. After reviewing relevant records and collections identified by their historians, NASA has decided not to rename its flagship observatory.
The final report, titled “NASA Historical Investigation of James E. Webb’s Relationship to the Lavender Scare,” was compiled by NASA Chief Historian Brian C. Odom (Ph.D., MLIS) and is accessible via the servers of NASA.
To bring it down, the Lavender Scare coincided with McCarthyism and the second Red Scare that took place in the late 1940s to mid 1950s. Rather, it was due to the mass firing of government personnel based on homosexuality allegations. Between 1949 and 1952, James Webb was under secretary of state in the Truman administration, where he was responsible for enforcing Executive Order 10450 and other provisions prohibiting “subversives” from taking office.
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Webb later served as NASA’s second administrator (1961 to 1968) and oversaw key aspects of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Amid the controversy over his possible role in the Lavender Scare, there have been calls from the public and scientific community to rename the flagship space telescope. Last year, NASA launched an investigation into Webb’s service history to determine his role in promoting anti-LGBTQI+ policies. These policies were eventually overturned in 1975 due to lawsuits (such as the landmark 1969 Norton v. Macy trial).
The report also offers details of the investigation, saying Odom and his team examined more than 50,000 pages of documents from archival collections. Sources included NASA Headquarters in Washington DC; NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland; The Truman Presidential Library; and secondary sources on the period. Of particular concern was the firing of Clifford J. Norton, a NASA GS-14 budget analyst, who was fired and arrested in 1963.
According to the Executive Summary, NASA cited its commitment to openness and tolerance, stating that “[b]Building a more inclusive future requires that we honestly and openly address our history, including times when the federal government failed to support LGBTQI+ communities.” However, upon review, the authors say they found no evidence that Webb was “a leader or advocate” of these policies. Specifically, they state that:
“The report found that Webb’s primary involvement was in attempting to limit Congressional access to State Department personnel records. None of the evidence found connects Webb to any follow-up actions or prosecutions for layoffs after these discussions.
Suffice to say, this decision has left many disappointed and outraged, who see it as the latest indication that systemic discrimination and intolerance are still part of the system. For many people, this decision highlighted how organizations today continue to make a formal, stated commitment to change rather than taking steps to deliver it. Jason Wright is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of the Sexual and Gender Minority Alliance (SGMA), the committee that advises the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on LGBTQ+ issues.
During the investigation, Wright led the effort to find out what NASA was doing about it and spoke with Odom about his research into Webb’s possible role in the Lavender Scare. For starters, Wright criticized the investigation itself and how she interpreted Webb’s involvement in the firing of LGBTQI+ employees. As the NASA historians who conducted the Executive Summary Report put it, “The central purpose of this investigation was to locate any evidence that might indicate whether James Webb acted as a leader or advocate for firing LGBTQI+ employees from the federal workforce.”
Ash Wright countered via Twitterthis narrow focus avoids the renaming problem:
“As expected, it appears that NASA has asked historians to focus on a narrow question that is only part of the rationale for renaming JWST. Of course, being a “LBGTQ+ employee termination leader or advocate” would be disqualifying. But the bar for naming the most important telescope of a generation should be a little higher, right?
“That said, the evidence we knew is still there: Firing LGBT+ people at NASA was ‘custom within the agency’ when Webb was an administrator. He may not have been a “leader or advocate” of that policy, but he also hasn’t resisted or downplayed it. He should have been aware of that.”
As he further explained on his website (AstroWright), the decision to keep the name is a slap in the face to every LGBT person working at NASA today. “Think for a moment about the LGBT employees of NASA working on JWST today,” she wrote. “They want to be proud of their work, proud of the telescope, proud as LGBT employees of NASA. But to use the telescope’s name alone is to name a man who, no doubt, would have gotten them shot. This seems perverse to me.
Another point of contention is how the JWST was named in the first place, which broke with convention. Former observers, such as Spitzer, Chandra, Compton, and the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (NASA’s big observatories), they were all named after the scientific principles they were studying or the scientists who helped advance the field. Furthermore, the selection process was carried out through competitions and consultations with astronomers, international partners, legislators, politicians, elected officials and the teams responsible for building the observatories.
However, that was not the case with the JWST. In 2002, Sean O’Keefe (NASA administrator from 2001 to 2004) made the decision to appoint Webb without the usual consultation or the competitive process. As Forbes senior contributor Ethan Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science popularizer, put it:
“He gave the telescopes unilaterally [its] name and the community never had the opportunity to hear their input. This is not a telescope named for astronomers. And when you spread the message that this is ‘your telescope’, that this ‘telescope is for you’, that this is ‘humanity’s telescope’. I think the idea that you can have an administrator could give this observatory the name of another administrator – I think that is the height of absurdity.
“Regardless of James Webb and what his role was in the Lavender Scare in the 1950s and 1960s, what his role was in making or maintaining NASA a place where gays were not welcome, and regardless of how that legacy takes place today in 2022 America – which I think are all legitimate issues – this telescope should never have been called the James Webb Space Telescope because that’s not what we call telescopes.
“This is not a name that reflects astronomy, astrophysics or community. This is a name given to us by outside forces, and now we’re told to live with it, no matter who gets the name wrong. I hope this is the sort of thing that we look back on through the eyes of history and say, “Oh, my, isn’t that something we should all be ashamed of?” That we did it and thought it was okay?
For now, NASA administrators appear satisfied with their investigation into the matter and are hushing it up. But for many people, who reach far beyond the scientific and LGBTQI+ communities, the decision points to recalcitrant attitude and not due process. The good news is that there is still plenty of time for NASA to reconsider and rebrand the JWST into something that reflects the physics and astronomy it is investigating and the values NASA claims it upholds. If not, it seems fair to say that the JWST will leave a tainted legacy in its wake.
Further reading: NASA