Part of the James Webb Space Telescope
Photo: StockTrek Images / IMAGO
When the James Webb Space Telescope reaches its destination in space after its launch on December 18 from a spaceport in French Guiana, the astronomical community will have every reason to cheer.
The billion dollar project had been delayed again and again and was supposed to go into service years ago.
Astronomers are already raving about the possibilities that the most powerful telescope of all time will offer them.
From a distance of around 1.5 million kilometers, the telescope will observe ancient galaxies and stars from its orbit and explore the beginning of our universe.
And, so the hope is, to focus on the origin of space and time.
James Webb, who gave the telescope its name, could only have dreamed of such a powerful instrument.
Webb was the head of NASA for years, at a time when the space agency was not only growing under his leadership into the largest and most important institution in space history, but milestones such as the moon landing became reality with the Apollo program.
In 2002 NASA decided that the telescope should be named in honor of Webb.
But astronomers are now severely criticizing this.
On the one hand, there would undoubtedly be enough researchers in the history of astronomy who have advanced science and have so far gone unnoticed. Webb, the American who died in 1992, was not an astronomer, but rather a manager and politician. There is also an accusation that is perhaps even more serious from today's perspective: The lawyer and educationalist who studied law is said to have been involved in the homophobic government policy of the 1950s and 1960s.
During the McCarthy era, it was believed that gays and lesbians were national security risks and communist sympathizers. Because they have to hide their sexual orientation, they are more prone to blackmail. That's why they wanted to be removed from the civil service - thousands lost their jobs. Webb is said to have been involved in this discriminatory policy. He had made a career in Washington before taking office as head of NASA in 1961 and worked for example under President Harry S. Truman as State Secretary in the State Department.
As early as March, four astronomers had drawn attention to the dubious role of Webb in a comment in "Scientific American" and called for the telescope to be renamed. The reactions were different. Some, like the US historian David K. Johnson, do not see Webb as one of the leading figures in the action, also known as the "Lavender scare", even if the later NASA boss may have known what was going on. In addition, Webb is said to have been a supporter of African Americans and women at NASA, as noted by the African American astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi of George Mason University.
After the accusations emerged, NASA commissioned in-house historians to review historical documents. The results were published some time ago. There was no reason to change the name of the telescope, announced the current NASA administrator and former astronaut Bill Nelson in an economical statement, for example to the journal "Nature". "At this point in time, we haven't found any evidence to justify changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," added NASA chief historian Brian Odom, who led the investigation.
According to Odom, archivists examined the internal NASA records and also interviewed other historians who had dealt with Webb's role. In addition, an external historian was hired to investigate aspects such as Webb's career with other government agencies. But the corona pandemic had restricted the research because some not yet digitized documents were not accessible, for example from the National Archives in the US capital or the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Missouri.
For many scientists, the case is therefore not closed; NASA has made it too easy for itself from their point of view.
There can be no question of the announced transparency with which the authority wanted to proceed in the case.
Not even a report on the conduct of the investigation was published.
Petition with 1200 names
The list of a petition that continues to call for a renaming shows that there are not a few, but loud voices.
Around 1200 names are now noted on it, including researchers from Germany, for example from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching or from the University of Heidelberg.
As the signatories write, their group consists not only of space researchers, but also of those who will use the telescope in the coming years and do not want to be reminded of Webb. “We, future users of the next-generation NASA space telescope and those who will inherit it, demand that this telescope be given a name worthy of its remarkable discoveries. A name that stands for a future in which we are all free, «they say.
Most recently, the astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz had drawn further conclusions in the case. She is one of the authors of the "Scientific American" article and also acted as an advisor to NASA on the Astrophysics Advisory Committee. She has now resigned from this post in protest. "The brash, pathetic response to the very reasonable questions the astronomical community asked about the name of the James Webb Telescope sends a clear message about NASA's position on the rights of queer astronomers," she wrote in an online statement. This also clearly shows her that NASA did not deserve her commitment.
The freighter with the telescope has meanwhile arrived in Port de Pariacabo on the northeast coast of South America after a 16-day journey.
The billion dollar instrument is now waiting for departure into space at the spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana.
At the moment it doesn't look like the name will change again until then.