After years of development, NASA plans to launch the James Webb telescope in December. Recently, a petition demanding that the agency rename the satellite made the rounds online. Those who signed the petition claim that Webb was homophobic and, therefore, does not deserve to be honored in such a way. However, NASA disagrees. They won’t rename the telescope.
JFK made James Webb NASA’s second administrator in 1961. Webb helmed the agency until 1968. He was not there when the Apollo mission took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. However, his work was instrumental in getting them there. As a result, NASA sees that it is fitting to name the new telescope after Webb.
NASA announced that they would name the $10 billion space telescope for James Webb in 2002. Recently, people criticized this decision. The petition to change the name of the telescope gathered 1,200 signatures, according to the Daily Mail.
Those who started the petition and those who signed it, believe that James Webb was homophobic. They cite his involvement in the firing of a gay NASA employee in 1963. Additionally, they allege that Webb was involved in the “Lavender Scare,” which saw 91 gay employees “purged,” from the US State Department between 1950 and 1952.
NASA looked into these things. On September 30, NASA’s current head, Bill Nelson, said they found no evidence to support the claims made by the petition. “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
Background on the Petition to Rename the James Webb Telescope
James Webb served as the Undersecretary of State in the State Department during the 1950s. During that time, the Department worried that homosexuals were open to blackmail because of their “deviant,” lifestyle. So, then-president Harry S. Truman ordered all gay people to be purged from the State Department. This decree, known now as the “Lavender Scare,” saw 91 employees ousted from their jobs. Webb’s detractors pin part of the blame on him because he was a high-ranking official in the State Department at the time.
More damning, though, was the firing of Clifford L. Norton. He was a budget administrator for NASA. The Washington DC “Morals Squad,” arrested Norton in 1963. Not long after that, he was fired for being gay. NASA accused him of “Immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct,” according to the Daily Mail.
Again, James Webb was implicated in this because he was the head of NASA at the time. However, the staff behind a documentary about Webb, Chasing the Moon, say this is unfounded. As the head of the agency, they claim, he wouldn’t have been involved with Norton’s firing.