Science

The James Webb Space Telescope Hasn’t Launched Yet. In One Way, It’s Already a Relic.

It will collect important data, but what does its name say about who it’s for?

An illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope.
An illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to finally launch this fall. The 21-foot-diameter infrared telescope, which will observe astronomical objects in unprecedented detail, is nearly a decade and a half behind schedule, after being originally slated for takeoff in 2007. It’s over budget, with a final price tag of $10 billion, up from an original estimated cost of $500 million. It also memorializes a questionable person.

The project was initially planned in the 1990s, during which time NASA chose the telescope’s name after NASA’s second director James Webb. Webb was appointed by John F. Kennedy and led the relatively new agency from 1961 to 1968. This was during the height of the space race, when NASA accelerated both its human spaceflight program—including the Apollo program—and its scientific missions. The robotic spacecraft NASA constructed under his tenure guarantee he’ll be remembered for the agency’s contributions to science—and JWST is a way to make sure of that.

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But his time in government suggests he might have had an impact in another way. Webb served as undersecretary in the U.S. State Department from 1949 to 1952. During his time in that leadership role, the department purged hundreds of government employees under suspicion of being “homosexuals or sex perverts.” Webb was actively involved in these firings, which involved 425 people. The fact that the telescope bears his name upsets many queer astronomers and their allies, not least because some of them will rely on data from JWST. (My *cough* highly scientific poll on Twitter—where I chatter about astronomy—showed 90 percent of respondents admitting to being homosexual, sex perverts, or both.) I’ve written about the issues with naming an observatory after James Webb for years, as have others before me. But, as we near the launch date, and astronomers continue to debate Webb’s political role, I think it’s worth harping on a little more.

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The project’s namesake—and NASA’s refusal to change it—means that the agency is effectively launching an instrument meant for cutting-edge science, but bearing a dusty relic of a name. While it might have seemed like a bright idea in the ’90s to memorialize a dead white guy (JWST is in some ways the follow-up to Hubble—also named for a dead white dude), in the years since, the agency has turned to naming its rovers and spacecraft with inspirational words (the Mars Curiosity rover) or pronounceable acronyms (OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid-sample collector). The names of spacecraft, schools, and parks reflect cultural values. In the United States, our institutions are—belatedly—wrestling with the need to change many names, like monuments and military bases named for Confederate generals, who literally fought a war against the nation. They are now changing because historically marginalized people are finally having some say.

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The scientific and medical establishment specifically have, in recent years, begun a process of reexamining who is honored with concrete. As of this January, the California Institute of Technology is changing the names of several buildings that honor scientists who promoted eugenics, the idea that the human species can be “improved” through selection of who gets to have children. In addition to its association with Nazi ideology, eugenics is full of sexist, racist, ableist, and classist concepts. Similarly in the U.K., University College London has renamed buildings that formerly honored eugenicists, including Charles Darwin’s cousin who founded the field, while New York City removed a statue honoring J. Marion Sims, the 19th-century “father of gynecology” who experimented on enslaved women to get his data. NASA itself is considering rebranding the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in response to calls for a name change; Stennis was a notorious segregationist U.S. senator.

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The issue with JWST has been less fraught, though recently the controversy has erupted in public again. A widely circulated blog post published in January by astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi argues that Webb is innocent of involvement with the purge at the State Department because he wasn’t the one to give the testimony to a Senate committee on the LGBTQ “threat.” (He has revised his piece at least once since publication, though not its central claim that Webb should not be considered a bigot.) Oluseyi also praises Webb’s tenure at NASA, during which the agency emphasized scientific missions and opened its workforce to Black engineers ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (though it would be many years before the first Black astronauts were accepted into the corps).

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A group of astronomers—Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord—wrote in March in Scientific American that the telescope ought to be renamed nonetheless. “As someone in management, Webb bore responsibility for policies enacted under his leadership, including homophobic ones that were in place when he became NASA administrator,” they write. They suggested the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope, given her use of the North Star to lead people to freedom.

I’m in agreement with them that NASA should not just scrap the Webb name but use the project to actively center a Black woman. It would certainly update the telescope for the present moment and build on recent—if slow—progress that the agency has made in rethinking its naming practices. NASA has so far named one space telescope for a woman (in this case, a white woman), the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which it announced last May. It has named one for a man of color, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, in honor of Indian American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Last year, the agency renamed its headquarters building for Black aerospace engineer Mary W. Jackson, made famous by the book and movie Hidden Figures.

That said, I’m not optimistic that NASA will suddenly decide to change JWST’s name: Agencies are not known for moving nimbly in response to something short of a massive PR crisis. It’s likely that as with many other telescopes, people will call it by a nickname. Just as many Harry Potter fans now just refer to J.K. Rowling by her initials, JKR, to avoid invoking someone whose entire public persona is defined by bigotry, it’s probable astronomers will just say “JWST,” and try to pretend the “JW” part doesn’t mean anything.

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