JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…

The JWST deployable mirror undergoing tests

I heard last week that the ship carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely in French Guiana and is now being prepared for launch on an Ariane-5 rocket at the European Space Agency’s facility at Kourou. Since the telescope cost approximately $10 billion there was some nervousness it might have been hijacked by pirates on the way.

I’m old enough to remember JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope NGST); it was frequently discussed at various advisory panels I was on about 20 years ago. Although the basic concept hasn’t changed much – it was planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope working in the infrared and with a deployable mirror – at that time it was going to have an even bigger mirror than the 6.5m it ended up with, was going to be launched in or around 2010, and was to have a budget of around $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December total cost greater than ten times the original estimate.

I know many people involved in the JWST project itself or waiting to use it to make observations, and I’ll be crossing my fingers on launch day and for the period until its remarkable folding mirror is deployed about a fortnight later. I hope it goes well, and look forward to the celebrations when it does.

There is a big problem with JWST however and that is its name, which was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

It’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name. The name is a symbol of a time when homophobic discrimination was even more prevalent than it is now, and as such will be a constant reminder to us that NASA seems not to care about the many LGBT+ people working for them directly or as members of the wider astronomical community.

P.S. As an alternative name I suggest the Lavender Scare Space Telescope (LSST)…

22 Responses to “JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…”

  1. Matthew Smith Says:

    JCMT was held by pirates(ish) – or at least the steel sent over to build it…

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    When I lived in Sydney for three years in the 1980s one of the stands at the Sydney Cricket Ground was named the Pat Hills Stand. I thought I knew my Aussie cricketers but had never heard of him. It turned out that he was an administrator. This was a particularly poor show given that there was not a Don Bradman Stand and that Bradman was from New South Wales. It was eventually and rightly renamed.

    So, who *should* this telescope be named after?

    • Why should it be named after some person? Next Generation Space Telescope is a perfectly good name.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think Next Generation Space Telescope is a good name at all. What would you call its successor? Or when its successor arrives would you rename it Previous Generation Space Telescope.

      • Well the next one after the Next Generation Space Telescope would obviously be the Deep Space 9 Space Telescope….

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Let’s think of some deceased astronomers who we consider should have got a Nobel but didn’t.

    • Jonivar Skullerud Says:

      There was already a Don Bradman stand at the Adelaide Oval, where he played most of his first-class career.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Here is another reminder of part of my comments policy, which is clearly stated on the front page of this blog:

    Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    He wrote the hit song Macarthur Park, didn’t he?

  5. Émile Jetzer Says:

    We could still call it LSST all the time and ignore NASA about the name… 😏

  6. Tom Comeau Says:

    The best name I can think of is the Sally Ride Space Telescope. Though James Watt and John (Archibald) Wheeler also work.

  7. William Parsons telescope?

  8. > Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working at NASA,

    What is the evidence for this claim?

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