NASA said today a search of government archives supports its decision to keep the name of its former administrator, James Webb, on its flagship space telescope. Many astronomers had urged NASA to rename the telescope following accusations that Webb participated in discrimination and firing of LGBTQ+ staff from the U.S. federal workforce in the 1950s and ’60s.
In an 89-page report, NASA’s chief historian, Brian Odom, describes a survey of more than 50,000 archived documents for evidence that Webb was involved in what was known as the Lavender Scare. No evidence “directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation,” the report says. As a Department of State undersecretary, Webb attended two meetings in 1950 at which the anti-LGBTQ+ campaign was discussed. He gave senators information stating that homosexuals were “unsuited” for employment in the department but tried to limit congressional access to the department’s personnel records, the documents show.
The report also found no evidence Webb knew of the 1963 firing of NASA budget analyst Clifford Norton after Norton was arrested and accused of making a homosexual advance.
NASA first said in September 2021 it would not change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope after an initial study of the evidence. The instrument was launched in December of that year. But the agency was criticized for not revealing details of its review. Odom later initiated a more thorough investigation, searching archives that were not open during the COVID-19 lockdown. Besides reviewing documents, the report says he consulted other historians and archivists who had previously studied these issues.
Some astronomers said they were not persuaded by the new report and vowed to continue their quest for the telescope to be renamed. “It is highly likely that [Webb] knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War,” wrote cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and colleagues in a blog post. “We are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination that happens on their watch.”
Other scientists criticized the agency’s decision to release the report on LGBTQ+ STEM Day, which honors “the work and barriers of LGBTQIA+ people in science, technology, engineering, and maths.”
A spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society—which, with other professional societies, has called for the telescope to be renamed—said it would have no comment until its board of trustees could meet to discuss NASA’s decision.