If we had to find a name for the largest library in the world, many possibilities would surely occur to us. Poets, printers, playwrights, journalists… The options would be almost endless. But no one would think of baptizing it in honor of Torquemada. Yes, he was related to the books, in a way, but the persecutions he carried out as inquisitor are not a point of pride. Therefore, it is surprising that the James Webb has been baptized in honor of someone who was behind the persecution of many people for his sexual orientation
Precisely for this reason, after NASA decided to name it that way, part of the scientific community threw their hands up. Astrophysicists from around the world were quick to show their displeasure, both through social media and more directly, with a letter addressed to the space agency. It recalled some of the unethical actions of James Webb and the rectification of the space telescope name.
However, NASA responded to the criticism by assuring that, after an investigation of the matter, they had concluded that there was no reason or sufficient evidence to change his decision on the name of the James Webb. One of the scientists who signed that letter, the astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz, resigned as advisor to the agency and many other scientists joined in showing their discontent. She was no use. The telescope was launched last December 25th with the initial name. Since then, she has made great achievements. However, discontent over the name has prompted the unwritten rule among some scientists to mention it as JWST.
Who was James Webb?
James E. Webb was the second NASA administrator with a non-interim position. His mandate came after that of the doctor Keith Glennan and spread from 1961 to 1968for which he was at the head of the agency during the bulk of the planning of the first Apollo missions, with which humans first landed on the Moon. This might be a good reason to name a space telescope after him, if it weren’t for the much longer story.
Before coming to NASA, James Webb was the second-in-command of the United States Department of State. There, he held a prominent position in a movement known as terror lila. This consisted of persecuting and firing any public official suspected of homosexuality. At least 91 employees were fired for “security reasons”. The reason they hid behind was that homosexuality was a psychiatric disorder and, in turn, there were sectors that accused these people of being related to communism that had previously promoted the red terror.
As if this were not enough, after the arrival of James Webb at NASA, the layoffs to LGBTI people went to the agency. One of the people who lost his job after a long interrogation was the budget analyst Clifford Norton. His case report stated that he was fired for “immoral, indecent and disgraceful conduct.”
Scientists against the name chosen by NASA
In March 2021, Wallkovicz herself along with astrophysicists Brian Nord, Sara Tuttle y Chanda Prescod-Weinste published in Scientific American a very controversial letter. In it, they showed their rejection of the name selected by NASA and requested that another be chosen before launch.
“The name of such an important mission, which promises to live in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should be a reflection of our highest values.”
Lucianne Wallkovicz, Brian Nord, Sara Tuttle, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astrophysicists
They recall that, despite attempts to clear his name over the years, in 1950 Under Secretary of State Carlisle Humelsine submitted a set of memorandums to James Webb that included “objectives and methods of operation of the Senate Committee established to investigate the problem”. They also point out that Webb himself shared that information in a meeting with Senator Clyde Hoey of North Carolina. And also that “records clearly show that he planned and participated in meetings during which he delivered homophobic material”.
Unfortunately, nothing in the letter was helpful and NASA went ahead with its initial plan inicial. The decision sparked further discontent, as details of NASA’s internal investigation into James Webb were not made public. Wallkovicz resigned from her position as an adviser to the agency. Meanwhile, other scientists decided to show their rebellion with that unwritten rule of not mentioning the telescope as it has been baptized.
The JWST is the Lord Voldemort of telescopes and the truth is that those who make this decision are right to do so. After all, as the four astrophysicists said in their letter, “James Webb’s legacy is the antithesis of sleep and the feeling of freedom Inspired by the exploration of deep time and distant space. Looking at the sky should evoke freedom. Doing it through the eyes of an instrument baptized as someone who rejected so many people for loving in freedom does not seem to be the best of tributes.