NASA Won't Rename Telescope After 1,200 People Protest LGBT Discrimination

NASA has said it will not rename its upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) despite concerns over its namesake from over 1,000 astronomy enthusiasts.

The space agency is due to launch the powerful new space observatory—seen as the successor to the famous Hubble telescope—on December 18, 2021.

But concerns have emerged over the new telescope's namesake, former NASA administrator and ex-U.S. undersecretary of state James Webb.

In an open letter publicly available on Google Docs, scientists Lucianne Walkowicz, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Brian Nord, and Sarah Tuttle highlight Webb's leadership during the Lavender Scare, a term referring to the discrimination against homosexual people in the U.S. government and their dismissal from governmental roles during the middle of the 20th century.

In an article published in the U.S. National Archives, archivist Judith Adkins states the Lavender Scare started in the late 1940s through the 1960s, during which time thousands of gay employees were either fired or forced to leave their jobs.

Adkins' article does not mention Webb by name, but the open letter states that Webb served as undersecretary of state during some of this time—which he did, from 1949 to 1952.

It also refers to the dismissal of former NASA employee Clifford Norton, who was fired by the space agency after he was arrested on suspicion of making a homosexual advance and questioned by a NASA security chief in 1963. This occurred while Webb was serving as NASA administrator between the years of 1961 to 1968.

Letter co-author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein told broadcaster NPR she has not seen evidence that Webb knew about this incident but held concerns nonetheless due to his position of leadership.

The letter reads: "As we have noted previously, Webb's legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution.

"We demand that NASA immediately rename JWST, and bestow this honor on someone whose legacy befits a telescope whose data will be used in discoveries that will inspire future generations of astronomers, discoveries that we the undersigned will make."

At the time Newsweek viewed the letter it had received 1,210 signatories—many of whom appeared to be astronomy enthusiasts, scientists, or students in other fields.

According to broadcaster NPR, NASA has investigated the matter and decided to keep the telescope's current name.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the media outlet: "We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope."

James Webb Telescope
A part of the James Webb Space Telescope under construction at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland on November 2, 2016. The telescope is seen as a successor to the Hubble telescope. Alex Wong/Getty