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Who was James Webb? And why do scientists want to rename the James Webb Space Telescope?

Webb was undersecretary of state during the Truman administration when the federal government systematically purged its ranks of LGBTQ employees.
James Webb and the James Webb Space Telescope.
James Webb, for whom the James Webb Space Telescope is named, ran NASA from 1961 to 1968.  NBC News; HUM Images; NASA

The excitement around unprecedented new images of far-off galaxies has reignited calls from some within the scientific and queer communities to rename the James Webb Space Telescope because of Webb’s alleged involvement in past anti-LGTBQ government policies in the mid-20th century.

Images from the telescope, a project three decades in the making, were released on Tuesday by NASA. The observatory, which launched into orbit in December 2021, is about the size of a tennis court and can take more detailed images from deeper in space than any equipment of its kind.

NASA has billed the mission as an “Apollo moment,” with the potential to answer probing questions at the frontier of space discovery, including about life on other planets. But the agency has also faced criticism for naming its signature project after former NASA Administrator James Webb, who previously had served as undersecretary of state during the Truman administration, when the federal government systematically purged its ranks of LGBTQ employees. 

Truman And Webb At Nasa Headquarters
Former President Harry S. Truman shakes hands with NASA Administrator James Webb as he visits the newly opened NASA headquarters in Washington in 1961.Heritage Images via Getty Images

In a statement to NBC News, a NASA spokesperson said Tuesday the agency’s historians have conducted an “exhaustive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career,” which has included speaking with experts who “previously researched this topic extensively.” 

“NASA found no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the telescope,” the statement said. “They are compiling their information now into an update the agency will share.”

Webb ran NASA, then a fledgling space agency, from 1961 to 1968, playing a major role in the Apollo program. Prior to his role at NASA, he served with the Truman administration during a period in the 1950s now known as the Lavender Scare. From the late 1940s to the 1960s, thousands of federal employees were forced to resign or were fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

NASA Administrator James E. Webb looks on from behind President John F. Kennedy as he presents astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. with NASA's Distinguished Service Medal Award in a Rose Garden ceremony on May 8, 1961.
NASA Administrator James Webb looks on from behind President John F. Kennedy as he presents astronaut Alan Shepard with NASA's Distinguished Service Medal Award at a Rose Garden ceremony on May 8, 1961. NASA

In his 2004 book “The Lavender Scare,” LGBTQ historian David K. Johnson writes that Webb worked with Truman and a Senate committee whose task was to “determine the extent of the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in Government.” 

An editorial published in Scientific American in March 2021 by four scientists cites Johnson’s book as one source showing links that Webb had to anti-LGBTQ policies. The authors call Webb “a man whose legacy at best is complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and one of the authors of the Scientific American editorial, called this week’s release of the telescope’s images “bittersweet.”

“I’m so excited for the new images and so angry at NASA HQ,” she wrote on Twitter on Monday. “NASA leadership has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that what is now public info about (Webb’s) legacy means he does not merit having a Great Observatory named after him.”

Prescod-Weinstein, one of the astronomers leading the charge to rename the telescope, organized a petition last year along with several other scientists to rename it. The petition has been signed by more than 1,700 people, most of whom work in astronomy or “a related field.” It calls on NASA to instead “bestow this honor on someone whose legacy befits a telescope whose data will be used in discoveries that will inspire future generations of astronomers.”

Ahead of the release of the telescope’s images this week, the advocacy organization Just Space Alliance released a 40-minute documentary detailing evidence of Webb’s involvement in anti-LGBTQ policies. 

“I think NASA has been making it harder on everyone by not being willing to start or even participate in having a sort of transparent and open conversation about the issue at hand, with this particular name for this particular telescope, and the idea of how we name telescopes and other instruments in general,” astrophysicist Brian Nord said in the film. 

Internal agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and published by the journal Nature in March showed the agency knew about an appeals ruling involving a NASA employee who was fired in 1963 because his superiors thought he was gay. Webb was head of the agency at that time.Follow NBC Out on TwitterFacebook & Instagram