Advising committee member resigns after NASA refuses to change telescope named after homophobic former administrator

A member of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee resigned on 12 October from the committee in protest against the space agency refusing to rename its next-generation James Webb Space Telescope.

In an open letter to their colleagues at NASA, Lucianne Walkowicz wrote, “NASA’s handling of the questions regarding James Webb as a choice for naming its next flagship mission has made a farce of this committee.”

Reflective surfaces of the James Webb Space telescope. Image Courtesy: NASA/Twitter

The space telescope is named after James Webb, a former NASA administrator, who is criticised for his role in purging off LGBT+ from government service. The naming of the telescope has prompted fierce criticism and a demand to rename it to remove Webb’s name. The demand was supported by over 1200 people inside and outside the scientific community who called for the renaming of the telescope in an open letter. According to the open letter, “Webb served as the undersecretary of state during the purge of queer people from government service known as the ‘Lavender Scare’.”

However, NASA found “no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," NASA administrator Bill Nelson told NPR in September. Walkowicz also expressed objection claiming that Nelson’s statement was quietly emailed to a few selected journalists.

The telescope was originally named just ‘Next Generation Space Telescope,’ but in 2002, then NASA boss Sean O’Keefe renamed it to honour Webb, who had served the US space agency during the Apollo era.

Webb was neither an engineer nor a scientist. Responding to the demand to rename the telescope, NASA had decided to conduct an internal investigation into the matter. Upon the completion of the investigation, in which the agency found no evidence, NASA did not release the investigation report publicly.

A non-binary astronomer, Walkowicz wrote in their resignation-cum-open letter that, “Sean O’Keefe can just suggest James Webb as a telescope namesake because he thinks it’s a nice idea, queer people are required to justify their opinions via an investigation.”

The space telescope with the controversial name is considered a technological marvel and a successor of the Hubble Space Telescope that has been guiding astronomers since 1990. The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch on December 18 this year and is expected to help astronomers understand the formation of galaxies, planets and stars with more powerful observation data.

Post a Comment