BAN #443: Renaming JWST
11 July 2022 Issue #443
[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)]
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What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI
[A new double crater was spotted on the moon’s far side by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on May 21, 2022, and is very likely the result of a booster rocket impact. From Monday’s article. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]
Monday 4 July, 2022: NASA mission spots Chinese rocket impact craters on the Moon
Tuesday 5 July, 2022: Jupiter's moon Europa is getting salty
Wednesday 6 July, 2022: BepiColombo’s second date with Mercury
Thursday 7 July, 2022: Monster black hole spinning at only — 'only' — 60% the speed of light
Friday 8 July, 2022: Newly discovered star takes just four years to orbit Sgr A*, our local supermassive black hole
If we don’t do our part, who will?
Tomorrow is the big day: The release of the first images and spectra from JWST. I’ll be covering it on the blog, of course — the data are released at 10:30 a.m. Eastern, so my post will go up an hour or so later.
It’s an important day to be sure, but I cannot help that it is tainted at some level due to the naming controversy. In April I wrote about it right here on the BAN: James Webb, after whom the telescope was named, was the second NASA administrator and ran the agency during the early Apollo era. He wasn’t an astronomer but he advocated heavily for NASA to do more science with Apollo, and his contribution there is undoubted.
But he did this during the Lavender Scare, when the US government was hunting down and persecuting “sexual perverts”: homosexual people. It’s not clear what his exact role was in this, but it’s clear there was a culture of oppression in NASA, and he ran the shop, so no matter what it happened under his purview. He acquiesced to it. He was also Undersecretary of the State Department when hundreds of people were fired for being homosexual or for suspicion of being homosexual. That’s pretty damning.
A lot of astronomers are very unhappy the observatory is named after him. It’s difficult to want to use an instrument when you know you’ll have to write about it using the name of someone who worked to negate your very existence.
A group of astronomers has been vocal about this, and some formed the JustSpace Alliance, “to advocate for a more inclusive and ethical future in space”. They made a video documentary about the JWST naming issue, which is on YouTube. I strongly urge you to watch it; it’s done quite well and makes a lot of salient points.
I’ll note the references in the video are meticulously documented and available on Google Drive for all to see.
While they do spend a lot of time discussing the homophobia, what’s interesting to me is that — while it’s hard to make the case whether Webb himself personally was a bigot or not — there are lots of other reasons not to name it after him. He was a cold warrior, and helped invent a more modern psychological warfare for the US government at the time, which aside from everything else makes naming it after him dicey at best.
The name was chosen internally, basically by fiat from Sean O’Keefe, the NASA Administrator in 2002, with no input at all from either the community at large or those who worked on the project. It also wasn’t done following NASA’s own guidelines for naming conventions.
Plus, as I wrote in my earlier article and to me very importantly, astronomers made enough noise and NASA investigated Webb’s involvement in the small-minded government bigotry, but the way they handled it was poor at best, and then rather summarily decided there wasn’t enough evidence to change the name. This was done with almost no transparency, which would be dissatisfying at best, but came across as downright insulting to the community.
Incidentally, Space Policy Online editor Marcia Smith contacted NASA for a comment about the video, and their reply is… less than satisfying.
Maybe the current NASA Administrator, former Senator Bill Nelson, or others in the NASA administrative structure don’t think enough of this to make the effort, or think that it would be a pain to change the name. But at this point I think NASA has mishandled the situation enough that that they need to stop and reassess their entire effort here, and, in the end, changing the name is the least they can do. In the video astronomers suggest renaming it to the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope. That would be OK with me; while I’d prefer naming it after someone who did something more directly related to what the ‘scope will do, I do see the reasoning here and I think it works just fine.
As I wrote a couple of years ago on the BAN about the naming of names (paid subscribers only):
What we name things does mean something, or else we wouldn’t name them. Years down the road, when that person is dead or at least memories are fuzzier, they will be remembered by the names they and we have bestowed on our works. When it is something as grand as JWST […] we should have a care when naming it. That doesn’t mean turning anyone and everyone down if they did something at some point you don’t like. We all have feet of clay, and there are always things you can find about someone that would make you unhappy.
Nothing in the human Universe is black and white; everything has levels to it, a spectrum. Certainly astronomy teaches us this as allegory over and again! Something I may be fine with you may not, and vice-versa, and I can guarantee there’s not a definable line where that cutoff may be. I think these situations should be judged on their merits, within reason.
And I think here, in this situation, the merits call for renaming JWST.
P.S. There’s a petition to rename the observatory as well. I’ve signed it.
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Caroline Herschel? Jocelyn Bell? Vera Rubin? Katie Bouman? So many great women in astronomy - many who have had their work subsumed by men - would make great candidates for renaming the JWST.
I did not know this about Webb. Thank you. I will sign to rename. We are in strange times. Where are the aliens when you need them??