At its meeting in July the governing council of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) took a decision to write to the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA to express its concerns about the original JWST naming process, the apparent failure to investigate James Webb’s background and the dismissal of requests to rename the telescope.
Until that investigation takes place and the results are made public, the RAS now expects authors submitting scientific papers to its journals to use the JWST acronym rather than the full name of the observatory. In this case, the previous requirement for the acronym to be spelled out at first mention will not be observed. This change will also be reflected in our communications more generally.
The Society also urges space agencies around the world, including the UK Space Agency, ESA and NASA to implement transparent naming processes for future missions.
James Webb was the administrator of NASA during the 1960s. His stewardship led to the success of space projects such as the Apollo landings.
His historical reputation is however compromised by evidence that he took part in purges of gay men from the federal workforce in the 1940s and 1950s in the so-called Lavender Scare. In 1963, while he led NASA, the agency’s employee Clifford Norton was also sacked for ‘homosexual behaviour’.
Dismissing employees for their sexual orientation is entirely unacceptable. Paula Szkody, the president of our sister organisation, the American Astronomical Society (AAS), has twice written to NASA to request archive access for an independent historian with expertise in LGBTQ+ history to fully investigate Webb’s role.
The AAS noted that the telescope was named without consulting the astronomical community and we also understand that the European Space Agency, a major international partner in the observatory, was not involved in the naming process. So far the two AAS letters have received no formal response from NASA.
The UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and NASA are all strong public advocates of equity, diversity and inclusion in recruitment and retention of employees, ideas central to the mission of the RAS. We therefore share the disappointment of the AAS in NASA’s failure to respond and to investigate Webb’s background to establish the facts, and ask that this happens as a matter of urgency.
Update: It was said in our initial article that the two AAS letters have received no formal response from NASA. It has since been brought to our attention that this is incorrect; the AAS has contacted the RAS to let us know that a reply was received from Administrator Nelson on April 15, subsequent to the second April 6 AAS Digest notice from Paula Szkody updating the members on the situation.