James Webb Space Telescope: No evidence linking namesake to LGBTQ staff layoffs

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Despite numerous calls from astronomers to rename its powerful new telescope, NASA officials was behind the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope before launch.

Now that the telescope has been in space for nearly a year, the agency has released its chief historian’s research into the telescope’s namesake. James Webb, NASA’s second-ever administrator, worked at the U.S. State Department during the Lavender Scare, a period when LGBTQ federal employees were often fired or forced to resign, and the decision to name the telescope after him drew criticism from researchers.

According to Brian Odom, the NASA historian who completed the study, there is no evidence that Webb was directly involved in those fifties firings or the 1963 firing of gay NASA employee Clifford Norton.

Officials at NASA announced in 2002 that the telescope would be named for Webb, who oversaw the Apollo moon landing program in the 1960s and helped polish the fledgling agency’s reputation. It was considered an unusual choice at the time, as Webb was an administrator, not a scientist.

Months before the telescope was finally due to launch, several astronomers called on NASA to remove Webb’s name from the telescope, who has since captured several never-before-seen images of the universe.

James Webb (center) is flanked by Alabama Gov.  George Wallace and Marshall Space Flight Center Director Dr.  Wernher von Braun in 1965. Webb is acclaimed for his role in the Apollo lunar program.

In a 2021 piece for Scientific American, a group of astronomers wrote that Webb’s legacy “is complicated at best and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.”

Even scientists working on the telescope have expressed displeasure with the name. Earlier this summer, Dr. Jane Rigby, the project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, tweeted that “a transformative telescope should have a name that stands for discovery and inclusion.”

However, officials at NASA have declined to rename it, citing an investigation into Webb’s career. The results of that research have only now been made public, almost a year after the telescope’s launch.

In his report on his investigation of Webb, Odom acknowledged the pain caused by the Lavender Scare, but said that “no available evidence directly links Webb to any action or follow-up related to the firing of individuals because of their sexual orientation.”

The findings of that study, Odom wrote, were based on more than 50,000 pages of historical documents from various archives, including NASA headquarters, the Truman Presidential Library and the National Archives.

Odom examined two meetings that predate Webb’s time at NASA: In 1950, then-Undersecretary Webb met President Harry S. Truman and later two White House aides and Democratic Senator Clyde Hoey of North Carolina to discuss the Hoey Commission, a Senate subcommittee. to examine how many LGBTQ people worked for the federal government and whether they posed “security risks.”

During his meeting with Truman, Webb discussed with the president how the committee and the White House “could ‘cooperate on the homosexual investigation,'” according to historian David K. Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Homos and lesbians in the federal government,” one of many documents Odom cites in his report.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever built.

No evidence links Webb to any action that followed those discussions, Odom said.

The historian also examined the firing of Norton, a budget analyst at the space agency. Norton sued the Civil Service Commission after his firing, and his case, Norton v. Macy, was one of several that helped overturn an executive order that allowed federal agencies to fire LGBTQ employees because of their sexuality, Odom wrote.

Odom said he had found no evidence to show that Webb knew about Norton’s firing; since it was federal policy at the time to expel LGBTQ employees, Odom wrote, Norton’s departure was “most likely—though sadly—considered not exceptional.”

No document could prove that Webb was directly related to the firing of LGBTQ employees, Odom said.

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