The James Webb Space Telescope’s Cloud of Controversy


In the early hours of December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope made headlines as it began its nearly one-million-mile journey to orbit. The long-awaited launch filled the air with excitement, and even a sigh of relief, for many scientists, engineers, and amateur astronomers. After decades of development, the James Webb Space Telescope was on its way.

Webb is a powerful infrared observatory meant to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope with improved technological capabilities. Perhaps the most outstanding of Webb’s features is its primary mirror. This feat of engineering is comprised of 18 hexagonal beryllium segments designed with alignment precision to one ten-thousandth the size of a human hair. A gold finish on each segment enhances infrared collection, ultimately allowing Webb to observe events that occurred 13.5 billion years ago. Webb’s capabilities will allow us to observe and study the earliest light formations in the known universe.

Surely, a technological marvel such as this is deserving of a great name, and NASA has a penchant for naming its observatories after some of the greatest names in astronomy. The Hubble Space Telescope was named for astronomer Edwin Hubble, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was named after Nobel-Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and the Roman Space Telescope (to be launched in the mid-2020s) was named after NASA’s first chief astronomer, Nancy Grace Roman. So, who exactly is James Webb, and why is he deserving of this honor? Well, that’s a question for which NASA has come under scrutiny.

James Webb was an Apollo-era NASA administrator who ran the agency from 1961 to 1968. During this time, it is said that Webb “did more for science than perhaps any other government official.” The pristineness of his record, however, has recently been called into question by many within the astronomical community.

Early last year, a petition calling for the renaming of the telescope began to circulate. The reason: the telescope’s namesake is suspected to have been involved in LGBTQ discrimination. The document describes an incident that occurred during Webb’s tenure as NASA administrator, where NASA employee Clifford L. Norton was held in interrogation, and ultimately fired, for “immoral conduct”. The “immoral” act in question? He was suspected of homosexuality. As of this month, the petition has collected 1,708 signatures from professional and enthusiast astronomers alike, citing that Webb has a leadership record that is “complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution.” Those concerned with the name of the telescope state that even if Webb was not directly involved in discrimination or persecution, his role as leader of an agency infused with LGBTQ discrimination speaks to his “sphere of influence.”

In response to these concerns, NASA spokesperson Karen Fox stated that their History Office has exhaustively researched Webb and his career, but their search has found no evidence worthy of a name change. So, to the dismay of those 1,708 astronomy-lovers, it appears that the name will stay.

Today, the James Webb Space Telescope is in orbit, but the implications of its name are still felt intensely here on Earth. Did NASA miss an opportunity to make things right with a large portion of the community for which their telescope is intended? Or do James Webb’s accomplishments as a champion for space and science supersede the offenses that occurred under his leadership?