NASA To Retain Former Administrator James Webb’s Name On Its Path-breaking Space Telescope

NASA To Retain Former Administrator James Webb’s Name On Its Path-breaking Space Telescope

by Karan Kamble - Nov 20, 2022 10:56 PM +05:30 IST
NASA To Retain Former Administrator James Webb’s Name On Its Path-breaking Space TelescopeJames Webb ran NASA from February 1961 to October 1968. (Photo: NASA)
  • NASA investigated whether James Webb was involved in the firing of government employees for their sexual orientation during his leadership at the US State Department and NASA in the 1950s and 1960s.

    No evidence has been found linking Webb to this wave of oppression in the US at the time, says a NASA report detailing the investigation.

The awe-generating infrared machine, set up early this year about 15 lakh kilometres out in space, goes about casually taking arguably the most stunning images ever.

Though we call it the James Webb Space Telescope, the use of the name “James Webb” has been a cause for controversy for quite a while.

James Edwin Webb was the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a fledgling agency at the time.

He led the space agency from 1961 to 1968 — a time when the great American dream of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade went from an idea to near-reality. 

Webb left NASA just as Project Apollo was nearing a successful completion.

While his leadership of NASA during such an extraordinary chapter of US space history was a terrific achievement, allegations have been made repeatedly that Webb's term was less than clean.

It has been claimed that government employees were fired from their jobs for their sexual orientation during Webb's leadership at the US State Department (Under Secretary of State, 1949 to 1952) and at NASA (1961 to 1968).

This period coincides with the troubling time of the “Lavender Scare” in the US, when thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality.

Such was the time that homosexuality was declared a mental illness by the American Psychological Association in 1952.

Concerns have been expressed, therefore, about whether Webb himself promoted anti-LGBTQI+ policies. Naturally, calls by astronomers and others to change the name of NASA’s most powerful space telescope have been made for years.

So, in March 2021, NASA — specifically the agency’s chief historian Brian C Odom — launched a historical investigation of the matter. 

Odom looked closely at Webb’s time in leadership at the US State Department and at the space agency. Under review were more than 50,000 documents from archival collections at various NASA centres and dedicated federal records agencies, such as the Truman Presidential Library and the National Archives and Records Administration.

The findings of this extensive investigation have been shared in a report, released on 18 November.

The takeaway? “The report found no evidence that Webb was either a leader or proponent of firing government employees for their sexual orientation,” a NASA statement said.

The report says: “... to date, no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation. However, the research and this report make clear that the Lavender Scare was a painful chapter in our national history.”

What this means is that the James Webb Space Telescope will retain its name. It will survive a second renaming.

Before bearing the name of the former NASA administrator, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope was plainly called the “Next Generation Space Telescope,” until its renaming in September 2002.

Though space telescopes are traditionally named after scientists, such as in the case of Hubble, this powerful telescope was named after an administrator, by an administrator.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a $10 billion large infrared telescope with an approximately 6.5-metre primary mirror.

According to NASA, Webb “will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.”

It has been uncovering the universe in magnificent detail, little by little, during the roughly four months that it has been doing science from around the Second Lagrange Point, its home in space.

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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