This Isn’t the Big Telescope Debut NASA Imagined

The James Webb Space Telescope, the long-awaited successor to Hubble, is mired in controversy over its namesake.

A photograph of a technician looking at the James Webb Space Telescope's gold-covered mirrors
David Higginbotham / NASA

Updated at 2:08 p.m. ET on October 27, 2021

In 1999, Karen Knierman picked up a free mug at her first big astronomy conference, just before she started grad school. It bore the logo of an ambitious observatory, designed to peer at the most distant galaxies in the universe: NGST, short for Next Generation Space Telescope. The mug was on Knierman’s desk in 2002 when NASA made a surprise announcement: NGST was going to become JWST, after James Webb. Knierman sipped from her suddenly out-of-date mug and wondered, Who?

That was the prevailing reaction among scientists at the time. Webb, who died in 1992, was more of a behind-the-scenes manager than a space-science star; he had served as NASA’s second administrator, in the 1960s, during the run-up to the Apollo moon landings. But scientists went with the rebrand. Work on the telescope continued. Scientists got new merch, new mugs.

JWST, an enormous $9.7 billion observatory with 18 mirrors coated in gold, is scheduled to launch into space this December. It’s the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which completely altered our view of the universe. Scientists around the world are ready to see JWST go; the telescope has been over budget and behind schedule for years. But rather than focusing on that long-awaited triumph, they’re caught up in a controversy over the 20-year-old naming decision.

More than 1,200 people, including professional scientists who have applied for observing time on JWST, have signed an online petition asking NASA to rename the telescope. Webb, critics say, is the wrong namesake for an instrument meant to inspire future generations of scientific thinkers. They point to archival, publicly accessible documents that show that, during his pre-NASA tenure at the State Department in the early ’50s, Webb attended a meeting about policies that discriminated against LGBTQ government employees. Other documents show that NASA, under Webb’s watch, engaged in discriminatory firing.

In response to that outcry, NASA conducted a review of historical documents, searching for evidence of Webb’s direct involvement in the discrimination against or dismissal of LGBTQ employees. Apparently, the agency failed to find it: Last month, without releasing any additional information, NASA’s current administrator, Bill Nelson, announced that JWST would stay JWST. “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name,” Nelson said in a statement.

If JWST had launched earlier, its name might have escaped this level of scrutiny. But it’s 2021, and NASA has spent the past few years making a concerted effort to recognize scientists—many of them women and people of color—who have been overlooked in space history. ​​The name of this telescope is one of the most important NASA will choose: Years from now, the name Webb might be just as well known as Hubble, another symbol of human accomplishment. Usually, NASA consults the space community in decisions like these, reaching for names that will resonate widely; in this one, the agency has relied, more than once, on top-down decision making and failed to show its work.

Now, instead of the glossy narrative it had planned for the launch of one of its most expensive projects, NASA has a problem. Even after Nelson’s announcement, scientists and others in the space community are still asking for answers. The controversy has followed JWST to its launch site in French Guiana, on the north coast of South America, where it arrived earlier this month by ship from California. And it will hover in the background as the telescope launches into space and settles into its faraway orbit, unfurling piece by piece, its radiant hexagonal mirrors ready to greet the universe. Even there, a million miles away from Earth, the telescope may still be weighed down by its terrestrial baggage.

The concept for JWST, née NGST, emerged in 1989, months before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA had high hopes for Hubble, but officials wanted to think ahead. The next instrument, they decided, would be even more powerful, able to scan the cosmos in special wavelengths that would reveal the light of ancient stars and galaxies that whirled into existence not long after the Big Bang.

With that kind of job, the name Next Generation Space Telescope seemed pretty boring to Sean O’Keefe, who was the NASA administrator in 2002. NGST, O’Keefe told me in a recent interview, was poised to dramatically alter our understanding of the universe and our place in it, a task that felt to him as seminal as the Apollo moon landings, which Webb championed. “Here was somebody who was really engaged in something roughly akin to the promise of what [the space telescope] could do,” said O’Keefe, who is now a professor at Syracuse University. Though the two men never met, O’Keefe admired Webb for his Apollo-era management, and for his push to invest in space science even as NASA focused on human spaceflight. So, as administrator, O’Keefe made a unilateral decision to rename NGST.

Usually, the names of space telescopes are chosen through a formal process, with time for discussion and debate, Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, told me. But with JWST, “none of us in the science community were involved,” said Hammel, who in 2002 was a member of a group tasked with outlining the observatory’s science priorities. And NASA had a long tradition of naming its space observatories after scientists—Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Compton—but Webb was an administrator. Patrick McCray, a historian at UC Santa Barbara who sat in on early meetings about the observatory, told me that O’Keefe’s decision to honor an American bureaucrat put off some scientists at the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, with whom NASA is working on the mission.

The current concerns about Webb’s character didn’t surface until 2015, in a pair of blog posts, and the discussion in the space community intensified as JWST’s launch date approached. The astronomers behind the new petition point to Webb’s leadership at the State Department during the Lavender Scare, a turbulent period that led to the firing of hundreds of LGBTQ employees. And they say that Webb was the head of NASA when the agency fired an employee because of his sexual orientation in 1963. After the employee was arrested by local police in Washington, D.C., on suspicion of being gay, a NASA security officer had brought him to NASA’s headquarters and interrogated him further before letting him go.

NASA looked into these allegations in a review that began in March 2021. Brian Odom, the agency’s acting chief historian, worked with an outside historian NASA hired for the effort. Odom told me that the historians searched for evidence that suggested Webb’s involvement beyond attending meetings where senior officials discussed Lavender Scare policies, something demonstrating that he was not a mere onlooker, reflecting the widespread homophobia of the federal government at the time, but a participant who actively pursued a purge. Odom said they looked for “action that is ordered by Webb … where we see a chain of command, where we see actions are made. That could have taken the form of a memo, some sort of correspondence, a letter from Webb to somebody else where he discusses next actions to be taken.” Odom said that they haven’t yet found any evidence that meets that standard.

Other historians I spoke with argue that Webb was, at the very least, an accomplice to discrimination, even if no physical evidence of it exists. “If you are the second in charge at the State Department and your agency implements a policy that destroys lives, that destroys careers—of course he’s complicit in that,” said Audra Wolfe, a historian who wrote about Webb in her book about Cold War–era policies, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Webb is far from the only figure NASA has revered who could be accused of complicity. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama bears the name of the secretary of state who led the department in the late 1940s as the Lavender Scare took shape. And the Kennedy Space Center honors a president whose administration tried to filter out LGBTQ people applying for government jobs, according to the historian David K. Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. But for some JWST critics, the significance of a space telescope's name is greater than a space center. Only one of those is a once-in-a-lifetime project that will be flung a million miles from Earth to uncover the wonders of the universe.

Odom said he presented his findings to Nelson in a series of conversations. There is no formal, written report. This was a surprise to many astronomers, including members of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), a NASA group that considers matters including scientific objectives and workplace culture. They expressed concern when Odom told them in a recent meeting that no report existed. “It feels a little insufficient to just present findings without presenting the basis for those findings,” Lou Strolger, an APAC member and a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the American organization that oversees JWST, said at the meeting. “I think a report would be warranted.” When I checked in with Odom last week, he said he would compile a report only if Nelson asked for one, and the administrator so far hasn’t. (Nelson’s office declined to comment on the potential release of a public report.)

None of this has eased the frustrations of the astronomers behind the renaming petition. One of them, Lucianne Walkowicz, resigned from APAC, citing NASA’s lack of transparency about its internal review of JWST’s namesake. It “sends a clear message of NASA’s position on the rights of queer astronomers,” Walkowicz explained. Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington who is bisexual, agrees. “I’m not going to burst into tears whenever I say ‘JWST,’ but it is one of a large number of reminders that say, ‘Yeah, you’re not really who we’re talking about here,” Tuttle told me. “It’s an accumulation of many Do you belong? Do you belong? We don’t think that you belong that, over time, is wearing.”

I asked Tuttle whether the review could have turned up information that shifted her view on JWST. Perhaps, she said, if the investigation had uncovered evidence that Webb had pushed back against any of the government’s discriminatory actions—for example, if the security chief who interrogated the fired NASA employee had faced any consequences. But it probably wouldn’t have changed her stance, or that of other critics. “We feel his overall history is complicated and complicit enough,” Tuttle said, “that it is unlikely we would become Webb enthusiasts.”

The story of the space telescope and its controversial namesake isn’t over. NASA’s review of historical documents is not, strictly speaking, complete: Odom said that because of COVID-19 restrictions, he and the other historian (whom Odom declined to name) couldn’t access the Truman Presidential Library, in Missouri, where some of Webb’s papers are stored. NASA has kept this historian on contract to continue digging. “If new evidence comes to light about James Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare, then NASA will respond to that new evidence,” Odom told me.

The agency has clearly been paying attention to the increased scrutiny on these types of decisions, about names meant to honor figures from the past. Last year, NASA renamed its Washington, D.C., headquarters in honor of Mary Jackson, the agency’s first Black female engineer. Also last year, it renamed a planned space telescope in honor of Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer. But some marks of the less-than-perfect past are untouched. A bust of Wernher von Braun, the engineer who developed rocket technology for Nazi Germany before doing the same for the United States, stands on the grounds of Marshall Space Flight Center, which von Braun ran in the 1960s. NASA’s Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi, is named after Senator John Stennis, who was a staunch proponent of segregation in the 1950s. (Some in the space community have argued for renaming that too.)

The Roman Space Telescope, meant to be JWST’s successor, was named in the usual way, through a deliberate process with outside input. “We really made sure to have buy-in from the science community,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, told me in a recent interview. There was no doubt that the space observatory, like so many others, would take the name of a scientist. Whatever your opinion of Webb's history, the administrator is an incongruous choice for such a project, and NASA could have avoided the controversy if it had stuck to its own tradition 20 years ago. O’Keefe, for his part, stands by his decision, saying he doesn’t believe there’s any evidence that shows that Webb was directly involved in discriminatory policies. Some scientists agree, and earlier this year an astrophysicist publicly argued that Webb cannot be definitively condemned.

When I asked Zurbuchen whether NASA should have a do-over with JWST, he demurred. Nelson made his call, Zurbuchen said, and “I think it’s important to move forward and move on.” But at a virtual NASA-led town hall last week, Zurbuchen seemed to take a softer stance. “This is a disappointment to some or even many—and, you should just know, perhaps even people around this call right now,” he said, looking around at his colleagues in the conference room with him at NASA headquarters.

Even people at the highest echelons of space science seem determined not to let the matter drop. Two senior leaders at major space institutions that work with NASA, who were granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me they plan to directly convey the discontentment they have heard within the community to NASA leadership. They said they are still hopeful that NASA will reconsider the name, before or after launch. Post-launch rebranding has happened before: In 2018, NASA renamed an observatory that had been in space since 2004 to honor the mission’s lead investigator after his death. If an administrator can choose to change a mission’s name at any point—if all Nelson has to do is say the word—why should Webb critics give up the fight?

The debate over JWST’s name is starting to look as seemingly endless as the budget problems, delays, and poor management that have plagued the mission for years. Audra Wolfe, the Cold War historian, believes that Webb himself, who wrote a wonky book about managing space programs, would probably bristle at being associated with a program beset with so many issues. At this point, the project has been delayed so long that the original NGST merch isn’t just outdated—it’s practically antique. “I’d joked over the years that [the observatory] couldn’t launch until the logo wore off,” said Knierman, who is now an astrophysicist at Arizona State University. JWST is now less than two months away from its grand exit from Earth, and the telescope’s old, generic name has nearly disappeared from Knierman’s mug. In its place is a little black smudge, so small and distorted, it looks almost like a stain.

This article has been updated to clarify the number of State Department employees who were fired during the Lavender Scare.