Royal Astronomical Society blames NASA for alleged homophobic roots of the Webb telescope name


The Royal Astronomical Society asks all scientists submitting documents referencing the James Webb Space Telescope to use the abbreviation JWST instead of the instrument’s full name, citing a lack of transparency by NASA on allegations of homophobic behavior by the namesake of the telescope.

NASA named the Webb telescope in honor of former space agency administrator James Webb, who led NASA from 1961 to 1968, a period that included the Apollo Moon program.

But a recent scholarship from University of South Florida LBGTQA + historian David K. Johnson suggests Webb may have participated in what Dr. Johnson calls “the lavender horror,” a purge of gays and lesbians from service. government in the late 1950s and 1960s.

When members of the astronomy community objected to naming the space agency’s new telescope in honor of former administrator Webb, NASA conducted an internal review of the evidence. They determined that there was no substance to the allegations and refused to change the name of the telescope and, in particular, did not make the full report and explanation of its findings public or share them with the astronomical community.

Critics dismissed, arguing that NASA’s review of the evidence was insufficient. An astronomer advised NASA to step down in protest.

In a media statement on Monday, the RAS said it would stop using the full name of the Webb telescope due to “the apparent inability to investigate James Webb’s background and the rejection of requests to rename the telescope.”

“Until the investigation takes place and the results are made public,” the statement continues, “RAS now expects authors submitting scientific articles to its journals to use the acronym JWST rather than the full name of the company. observatory”.

The company notes in the statement that NASA fired an employee named Clifford Norton in 1963, during his tenure as Webb administrator.

“Firing employees for their sexual orientation is totally unacceptable,” the statement read.

The RAS has written to NASA, the British Space Agency and the European Space Agency, about the allegations against the former administrator Webb – who died in 1992 – adding the voice of the company to that of the American Astronomical Society, AAS, which he also asked NASA to fully explain its decision not to rename the Webb telescope.

NASA did not respond to two letters sent by the AAS, the RAS noted in Monday’s statement.

“The UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and NASA are all strong public advocates of equity, diversity and inclusion in employee recruitment and retention, central ideas for the RAS mission.” reads in the company declaration. “We therefore share AAS’s disappointment over NASA’s inability to respond and investigate Webb’s background.”

The Webb telescope was developed jointly by NASA, ESA and the Canadian space agency, but was named after NASA, which has a tradition of naming space observatories in honor of pioneering scientists and administrators.

The Hubble Space Telescope was named after the astronomer Edwin Hubblewhich helped establish that the universe is expanding, while the Spitzer Space Telescope got its name from the astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr., the first person to propose putting telescopes into space. The upcoming NASA Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2026, is named after NASA’s first space telescope chief of astronomy.

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