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BAN #417: Time for NASA to apologize and rename JWST
21 April 2022 Issue #417
[Hubble image of NGC 3603. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. O'Connell (UVa), F. Paresce (NIA, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (USRA/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]
Subscribers know that the best future for humanity includes all of us
[An image of HD1, possibly the most distant galaxy ever seen, well over 13 billion light-years from Earth. From Friday’s article. Credit: Harikane et al.]
Monday 4 April, 2022: Timeline of the Milky Way
Tuesday 5 April, 2022: Psst! Wanna see an actual Hubble image of a planet forming around a nearby star?
Wednesday 6 April, 2022: Pluto may have once had huge cryovolcanic ice flows
Thursday 7 April, 2022: Surprisingly high fraction of dead galaxies found in ancient galactic city
Friday 8 April, 2022: The (maybe) most distant galaxy ever seen smashes the old record... by a lot
Space News / Social justice
Space is explored by humans. We need to always remember that.
The engineering and science testing of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is going almost supernaturally well. The mirrors are aligned and focused, the instruments are cooling to their operating temperatures, and in some cases the pre-science-operations preps are ahead of schedule. Given the complexity of this machine, that’s truly amazing and a testament to the people who designed and built it. It will certainly bring incredible science to Earth, and just as certainly spark a revolution or two along the way. I don’t know of any astronomer who is not excited about what the future holds for this observatory.
But not all is well with JWST. The ST part is doing great, but the problem is in the JW part. That, and the way NASA has handled it.
In 2002, NASA announced that the follow-up observatory after Hubble, then called the Next Generation Space Telescope, would be renamed to James Webb Space Telescope. I remember that announcement well; every astronomer I knew had the same reaction: “Who?” and then when they found out, the reaction was universally, “Seriously?”
[Art depicting James Webb Space Telescope in space, fully deployed, and ready to observe the cosmos. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez]
The problem as we saw it at the time was that James Webb wasn’t an astronomer; he was an Administrator of NASA, serving from 1961 – 1968. He oversaw the early days of crewed exploration leading up to the Apollo Moon landings. In general there’s tension between crewed and scientific space exploration — putting humans in space is a lot more expensive than using machines, so it gets the lion’s share of funding, sometimes to the detriment of science like astronomy. And, in general, you don’t need humans in space to do physical science. NASA made the case that Webb made it possible to do science in space, and while that’s arguably true it’s a stretch to name the single largest, most complicated, and most expensive space telescope in history after him.
Also, the tradition had always been that if they were named after people then those people were astronomers (or physicists). Chandra, Spitzer, Einstein, XMM-Newton, Compton, Hubble — yes, they’re all men, and that’s slowly changing (with the Nancy Roman Space Telescope, for example), but that’s a different argument — so naming something after an administrator was weird at best and off-putting to astronomers as well.
Then it came out that maybe Webb wasn’t all that great a guy. He was in charge of NASA during what’s been called the Lavender Scare, a ginned-up moral panic over homosexuality. It was a repellant and disgusting culture war, and a lot of gay people were fired from government jobs.
Webb’s role in the scare was the subject of some controversy. It looked very much like he played at best a passive role, and some documents showed evidence he took an active role in persecuting gay and lesbian people while in office. Many astronomers were understandably very unhappy about this, and a petition to NASA to change the observatory’s name had over 1,200 signatories.
Rather than go into details here, I strongly urge you to read my colleague Alexandra Witze’s terrific article about this for Nature magazine. She is a fantastic writer, and has details on what was going on at the time.
After the petition, NASA announced it would look into the issue. The chief historian would investigate with the help of a non-NASA historian to see if they could gather evidence to clear this up one way or another. Importantly, Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s Astrophysics division, made a public statement that the investigation would have to be open and transparent.
And that in my opinion was the biggest problem in this situation so far: It wasn’t.
A few months later, NASA made the announcement that they hadn’t found enough evidence to change the name, so they would stick with Webb. But they didn’t present any of the evidence. The announcement was made by fiat, and that was that.
Except of course it wasn’t. A lot of people were angered by that, rightly so. And now new evidence has turned up that the investigation was fraught with internal NASA conflict. I will once again point you to Alexandra Witze’s excellent writing, where she follows up on her first article with a second detailing what she found after a Freedom of Information query into the investigation.
Documents and emails seem to show that people involved in NASA could see that the Lavender Scare had indeed infiltrated NASA thinking in the 1960s, and that it was the informal if still active policy. [Disclaimer: I know some of the people named in the Nature article, both on the astronomy and the NASA administration side, with friends in both camps. This is difficult to parse, but I very much want to remain fair — not neutral, but fair — in my own conclusions.]
The fact that people in NASA were raising the alarm that this was bad, and that they were either ignored or discounted, is very disturbing. It’s also not clear how much LGBT+ community members were consulted in the internal investigation, either. The result is that it very much looks like some administrators at NASA were more interested in controlling the message to the public than they were in doing the right, if difficult, thing.
At some level that’s not surprising; NASA is after all a Federal agency, and prone to damage control. I can remember when it was revealed that Hubble’s mirror was ground incorrectly after years of defending the ballooning costs to Congress and the public; NASA went into defensive mode and every press release for months after spun and, frankly, overhyped, the images. There were so many “Hubble finds best evidence yet of a black hole” press releases that it became a joke among astronomers.
But it’s still pretty disturbing.
Adam Mann wrote an excellent summary of this for Scientific American, and again, please, read that. He also posted a really good summary series of tweets, starting with this one (click through to see the thread):
I’ll note that the President of the American Astronomical Society — the single largest organization of professional astronomers in the US — sent a letter to current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson urging NASA first to investigate Webb’s involvement with the Lavender Scare thoroughly, then a second letter (after the first was ignored) more strongly indicating this needs to be done better, and that a better naming process is needed.
All of the above is a lot of words that are basically preface, to give you some background on my own stance here.
Here’s what I think. What NASA needs to do here is threefold:
1) Apologize. Seriously, come clean, say this investigation wasn’t done well, wasn’t done transparently, and the process wasn’t told to the public after until the Freedom of Information requests were made. That sucks, it was wrong, and NASA — and by that I mean NASA in the form of Administrator Nelson — needs to publically and credibly apologize for that.
2) Rethink the naming process for observatories and missions. Some consistency would be good, to start with. Being inclusive is not just good but absolutely required. If an observatory is named after a person, then think it through. There are thousands of astronomers to choose from, and it’s not too hard to find ones who contributed significantly to the field. Do interviews with contemporaries, do the research. Also, just consider not naming them after people. Swift, TESS, GALEX, Gaia, Uhuru… plenty of cool, appropriate names are out there.
3) Rename the observatory. It was originally Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST, which was easier to say than JWST as well) for many years, with lots of websites and documents to that effect; when it was renamed to James Webb all those had to be changed. So it can be done again. It’s pretty clear that after all the mistakes made by NASA in this process, renaming the telescope would be an excellent way to show a sincere effort to make amends to the LGBT+ community — who make up a decent fraction of astronomers, and all humans.
I don’t have specific suggestions for a name, but I like seeing ancient cultures recognized, so something having to do with heat or warmth (infrared light is emitted by warm objects) would be appropriate. If there’s a myth dealing with sunrise and warmth that’s even better, since the observatory will peer back to the dawn of stars, when the first ones were born after the Big Bang. Just a thought. Consulting with relevant peoples shouldn’t be too difficult.
The telescope-formally-known-as-JWST will be a significant step forward in understanding the Universe, and as I have written many times, this is part of understanding ourselves. How can we hope to understand ourselves, let alone the cosmos, if we cannot self-reflect and have an open and honest process to do so?
NASA’s vision statement is, “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.” Part of that is recognizing history, recognizing the mistakes made, and fixing them so that we can move forward. That is very much for the benefit of all humanity.
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