The Royal Astronomical Society rebukes NASA for alleged homophobic roots of the Webb Telescope’s name

The Royal Astronomical Society is asking all scientists submitting papers referencing the James Webb Space Telescope to use the abbreviation JWST instead of the instrument’s full name, citing NASA’s lack of transparency over allegations of homophobic behavior by NASA. of the telescope’s namesake.

NASA named the telescope Webb after former space agency administrator James Webb, who led NASA from 1961 to 1968, a period that included the Apollo Moon program.

But recent scholarship by University of South Florida LBGTQA+ historian David K. Johnson suggests that Webb may have participated in what Dr. Johnson calls the “lavender scare,” a purge of gay and lesbian people from the government service in the late 1950s and 1960s.

When members of the astronomy community objected to naming the space agency’s new telescope after former administrator Webb, NASA conducted an internal review of the evidence. They determined that the accusations were baseless and refused to change the name of the telescope and, in particular, did so. do not make the full report and explanation of your findings public or share them with the astronomical community.

Critics pushed back, arguing that NASA’s review of the evidence was insufficient. An astronomer who advised NASA to resign in protest.

In a Monday press release, the RAS said it would stop using the full name of the Webb telescope due to “the apparent lack of investigation of James Webb’s background and the dismissal of requests to change the name of the telescope.”

“Until such research is carried out and the results are made public,” the statement continues, “the SAN now expects authors submitting scientific articles to its journals to use the acronym JWST rather than the full name of the observatory.”

The society notes in the statement that NASA fired an employee named Clifford Norton in 1963, during Administrator Webb’s tenure.

“Firing employees because of their sexual orientation is totally unacceptable,” the statement said.

The RAS has written to NASA, the UK space agency and the European Space Agency, about the allegations against former administrator Webb, who died in 1992, adding the society’s voice to that of the American Astronomical Society, AAS, which also asked NASA to fully explain its decision not to change the name of the Webb telescope.

NASA has not responded to the two letters sent by the AAS, the RAS said in Monday’s statement.

“The UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and NASA are strong public advocates for fairness, diversity and inclusion in employee recruitment and retention, ideas central to the SAN mission,” reads the statement. society statement. “Therefore, we share ASA’s disappointment at NASA’s failure to respond and investigate Webb’s background.”

The Webb telescope was jointly developed by NASA, ESA and the Canadian space agency, but was named after NASA, which has a tradition of naming space observatories after pioneering scientists and administrators.

The Hubble Space Telescope took its name from the astronomer edwin hubblewho helped establish that the universe is expanding, while the Spitzer Space Telescope was named after the astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer Jr., the first person to propose putting telescopes in space. NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2026, is named after her from the first head of astronomy

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