The James Webb Space Telescope can use its full name in British journal again after controversy

An illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope fully unfolded in space.
An illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope fully unfolded in space. (Image credit: NASA/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez)

A prominent British scientific society is allowing James Webb's name to appear in academic papers again, following an "apparent failure" to investigate the former NASA chief's past.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) previously criticized NASA for not immediately addressing concerns that Webb persecuted queer employees; the NASA-led James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb) that launched in December 2021 is named after him. But with new information to hand suggesting Webb played no direct role in these issues, Webb's name can now reappear in scientific papers, the RAS stated Dec. 22 (opens in new tab).

"The RAS will now allow authors submitting scientific papers to its journals to use either 'James Webb Space Telescope' or the acronym 'JWST' to refer to the observatory," RAS officials wrote. The major journals (opens in new tab) of the RAS include the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), one of the top astronomical journals worldwide.

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In October, the RAS said it wrote NASA (opens in new tab) expressing concerns about how the telescope was named, citing "the apparent failure to investigate James Webb's background and the dismissal of requests to rename the telescope." The society said that all journal publications referring to the telescope must use the acronym JWST only, without spelling out the name, pending more information about Webb's past.

Weeks later, NASA released an 87-page report concluding that Webb had no direct role in what has been dubbed the "Lavender Scare," a set of U.S. government actions which discriminated against or caused the firings of queer employees in the 1950s. Part of the investigation included NASA chief historian Brian Odom and an unidentified outside historian surveying more than 50,000 pages from the period of 1949 to 1969.

Related: It's official: NASA won't rename James Webb Space Telescope

"To date, no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation," the Nov. 18 report (opens in new tab) reads. "Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," NASA officials added in a statement (opens in new tab) announcing the report.

Critics of the investigation, however, have said individuals whose names are used for prominent missions or monuments should be held to a higher standard besides a simple lack of evidence. They have also pointed to the broader cultural environment of the Cold War, when society at large persecuted queer individuals and little was done to protect those people.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace