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The $8.8-billion (£6.32billion) probe will peer into the distant reaches of the cosmos when it launches later this year and is NASA’s flagship astronomical observatory. But the space agency is considering whether to rename it, after reports emerged claiming that James Webb, after who it is named, was involved in persecuting gay and lesbian people during his career in US government. Some astronomers have claimed that keeping his name on it would glorify an anti-LGBT+ sentiment, while others say there is not yet enough evidence against Webb.
Webb, a former NASA administrator, oversaw the space agency from the beginning of the Kennedy era, through the end of the Johnson administration.
In May, citing Webb’s purported involvement in discrimination, four prominent scientists launched a petition to change the telescope’s name.
It has amassed 1,250 signatories, including experts who have been awarded observing time on the telescope.
NASA has now launched an investigation into the claims.
Brian Odom, the chief historian at NASA, is working with a non-agency historian to review archival documents about Webb’s policies and actions, according to agency officials.
Only after the investigation concludes will NASA decide what to do.
Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, told an agency advisory committee on June 29: “We must make a conscious decision.
“We must be transparent with the community and with the public for the rationale for whichever decision we make.”
Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe made the decision to name the probe after Webb in 2002.
Webb, who died in 1992, was a bureaucrat who oversaw all the critical first manned launches in the Mercury through Gemini programmes, until just before the first crewed Apollo flight.
As he was beginning his career with the US government in the late Fourties, gay and lesbian employees were reportedly being systematically rooted out and fired because of their sexual orientation.
The period is known as the Lavender Scare.
Those leading the calls for the satellite to be renamed claim that when Webb worked for the state department in the high-ranking position of undersecretary from 1949 to 1952, he passed a set of memos discussing what was described as “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts” to a senator who was reportedly leading the persecution.
They claim records in the US National Archives support this.
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Petition leaders wrote earlier this year in Scientific American: “The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material.”
But David Johnson, a historian at the University of South Florida in Tampa who wrote the 2004 book ‘The Lavender Scare,’ says he knows of no evidence that Webb led or instigated persecution.
He told Nature: “I don’t see him as having any sort of leadership role in the lavender scare.”
NASA has given no estimate of when its investigation might be complete.
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