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.

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 Knierman sipped from her suddenly out-of-date mug and wondered, Who?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.

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.

Source: The Atlantic

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