NASA won't rename its highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, according to media reports.
The moniker honors NASA's second-ever administrator, who led the agency from 1961 to 1968 as it was working to land people on the moon. Critics of Webb claim that he was complicit in discrimination against gay and lesbian NASA employees during his tenure, pointing to incidents such as the 1963 "immoral conduct" firing of Clifford Norton (opens in new tab).
Some of those critics created an online petition (opens in new tab) urging NASA to rename the nearly $10 billion telescope, which is scheduled to launch on Dec. 18. The petition lays out the case against Webb, which its creators say goes back to his pre-NASA days.
Before becoming NASA chief, "Webb served as the Undersecretary of State during the purge of queer people from government service known as the 'Lavender Scare.' Archival evidence clearly indicates that Webb was in high-level conversations regarding the creation of this policy and resulting actions," the petition states. "As we have noted previously, Webb's legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution."
Putting Webb's name on such a high-profile mission — NASA has billed the observatory as the successor to its iconic Hubble Space Telescope — sends a troubling message about the agency's commitment to inclusion and diversity, the petition's creators say.
"We, the future users of NASA's next-generation space telescope and those who will inherit its legacy, demand that this telescope be given a name worthy of its remarkable discoveries, a name that stands for a future in which we are all free," the petition reads.
As of Thursday evening (Sept. 30), the petition had garnered more than 1,200 signatures, most of them from professional astronomers or astronomy students.
NASA had previously said it would look into the renaming request. That work is now done, and the agency is sticking with the name, NPR reported on Thursday (opens in new tab).
"We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," current NASA chief Bill Nelson told NPR.
The news, and how it was delivered, did not go over well with University of Washington astrophysicist Sarah Tuttle, one of the petition's four creators. (The others are Lucianne Walkowicz of the JustSpace Alliance and Adler Planetarium in Chicago; Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire; and Brian Nord, from Fermilab and the University of Chicago.)
"NASA is relying on cowardice & poor PR technique to leak that they will not be renaming the JWST, named after a career administrator who oversaw homophobic persecution & development of psychological warfare, ignoring the request for reconsideration from 1,200 astronomers," Tuttle wrote on Twitter Thursday (opens in new tab), toward the end of a series of tweets about the name announcement.
"They have ignored both the petitioners and the advisory committee that requested an investigation, and have provided no details on either their research or their decision," Tuttle added in another tweet (opens in new tab).
The James Webb Space Telescope is optimized to view the cosmos in infrared light and features a primary mirror 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) across — nearly three times wider than Hubble's. After its mid-December launch from French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket, the observatory will make its way to Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from its home planet.
Once there, the telescope will perform a variety of impactful science work, from studying some of the universe's first stars and galaxies to hunting for signs of life in the atmospheres of nearby alien planets.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook.