The James Webb Space Telescope Has An ‘Unfortunate’ Name (And NASA Is Considering Changing It)

The James Webb Space Telescope Has An ‘Unfortunate’ Name (And NASA Is Considering Changing It)

Incredible details can be seen in the very first pictures taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The telescope’s deep infrared eyes are revealing portions of the cosmos with a clarity that has never previously been achievable. NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency are working together on the telescope as part of a collaborative effort. There are about 300 participating colleges, enterprises, government space agencies, and other entities.

Amidst all of the enthusiasm, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Webb telescope has been mired in debate. It was given its name in honor of a NASA administrator who was linked to the discrimination and harassment of gay and lesbian individuals during the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s and 1960s.
1906 marks the year of James Edwin Webb’s birth in North Carolina. In addition to serving in the United States Marine Corps, he earned degrees in teaching and law.

Between the years 1949 and the early 1950s, he worked for the State Department in a high-level post. In 1961, then-President of the United States John F. Kennedy named James Webb to the role of NASA administrator. Webb was just the agency’s second administrator since it was founded in 1958. In this capacity, he was accountable for the Apollo program, which was designed to place people on the moon. He was highly effective in advocating for assistance from Congress, and he also led NASA through the terrible aftermath of an event in which three Apollo 1 astronauts lost their lives in a capsule fire on the ground. In the aftermath, he steered NASA through the painful aftermath of the disaster.

In the context of the Cold War, when every space mission was seen as a potential political instrument, Webb advocated for research to be given more priority. In 1968, Webb resigned from his position at NASA, before to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In his later years, he was active in the Smithsonian Institution.  He also served on a number of other advisory boards. He died in 1992.

Lavender scare

During the height of the Cold War, Western capitalist democracies lived in constant dread of subversion by communists. This phenomenon eventually came to be known as the “Red Scare.” This anxiety was intertwined with the so-called “Lavender Scare.”

Persons who supported these beliefs stated that LGBTQ+ people were at danger of being coerced into becoming Soviet spies because of the societal stigma that was associated with their sexuality. People who identified as LGBTQ+ were fired from their jobs in the United States government beginning in the late 1940s under the sway of Republican politician Joseph McCarthy.

The precise role that Webb played in the Lavender Scare is a topic of intense controversy. Several astronomers who have signed a petition to have the telescope renamed have pointed out that, when Webb was working at the State Department, he participated in high-level discussions over regulations pertaining to the Lavender Scare. When naming space instruments, a consultation procedure is often used, and the general public is frequently given the opportunity to offer their suggestions. Altering the names of spacecraft is another practice that is not unprecedented. For instance, following its inauguration in 1991, the Gamma Ray Observatory was renamed after the scientist Arthur Holly Compton.

In 2002, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe is said to have been the one who decided on the moniker Webb telescope. According to the statement that was issued by NASA in reaction to the debate, there is currently no evidence that justifies altering the name of the telescope.

For instance, there has been a reaction against the commemoration of colonial figures who committed atrocities against Indigenous or enslaved persons, resulting in the toppling of monuments all across the globe. This has occurred as a result of the backlash. There are others who consider the concept of inclusion to be the pinnacle of political correctness. Some people believe that if we continue to uphold historical obstacles to involvement in research — based on factors such as race, class, gender, and disability — then we will miss out on potential brilliance.


Anna Daniels

Anna is an avid blogger with an educational background in medicine and mental health. She is a generalist with many other interests including nutrition, women's health, astronomy and photography. In her free time from work and writing, Anna enjoys nature walks, reading, and listening to jazz and classical music.

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