NASA documents hint at discussion to rename Webb telescope: Report

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Internal email documents of NASA indicate that the US space agency officials have dismissed concerns raised by the LGBTQ community over the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The flagship telescope, which was launched in December last year, has been mired in controversy after being named after former NASA administrator James Webb, who reportedly discriminated against gay and lesbian employees in the 1950s and 1960s.

In early 2021, more than 1,200 people, mostly astronomers or astronomy enthusiasts signed a petition urging NASA to rename the telescope, following which NASA opened an investigation on the anti-LGBT+ claims.

The agency, however, did not release a report summarising its investigation or decision-making, Nature reported.

But in September, the US space agency said it does not intend to rename because it had no evidence to support the allegations.

Now, internal documents obtained by Nature and others through freedom-of-information (FOI) requests reveal that while making its decision, the agency was aware of a 1969 appeal ruling suggesting that it had been customary at NASA to fire people over suspicions about their sexual orientation.

Among the documents obtained by Nature were email exchanges between NASA officials and an external researcher from spring 2021, which discussed the 1969 court ruling, describing it as “troubling.”

The case involved a former NASA employee who had been fired in 1963 because supervisors thought he was gay. This was when Webb was leading the agency.

The email correspondences “paint a stark portrait of how astronomers outside the LGBTQ+ community dismiss the experiences of their queer colleagues, and make it plain to see that discrimination against queer people is alive and well in astronomy today”, astronomers who led the community petition, were quoted as saying.

The documents don’t contain evidence that James Webb personally targeted LGBTQ people. However, astronomers opposing the name posit that he played a major role in setting the culture at the agency he presided over, the report said.

Webb was the chief of NASA between 1961 and 1968, when the Apollo programme to send astronauts to the Moon was at the height of its development. He died in 1992. In 2002, the telescope was named after Webb to recognise his leadership in government and his commitment to making science a key part of the agency.

The James Webb telescope is a landmark observatory supported by NASA, as well as the European and Canadian space agencies. The telescope, which is expected to make its first scientific observations no earlier than June, is designed to peer at galaxies near the dawn of time and explore other cosmic frontiers.

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