April 13, 2024

NASA’s Report Details a Dark Time in American History but Finds no Direct Evidence That Webb Fired People for Their Sexual Orientation

NASA has actually announced the release of the James Webb History Report, a file detailing their investigation into the name of the next-generation area telescope that took to space on December 25th, 2021. Months prior to it released, the observatory ended up being the topic of controversy when it was revealed that Webb was associated with the so-called “Lavender Scare.” After evaluating the appropriate files and collections located by their historians, NASA decided not to rename its flagship observatory.
The Final Report, titled “NASA Historical Investigation into James E. Webbs Relationship to the Lavender Scare,” was put together by NASA Chief Historian Brian C. Odom (Ph.D., MLIS) and can be accessed through NASAs servers.

To simplify, the Lavender Scare accompanied McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare that occurred during the late-1940s to mid-1950s. It was characterized by the mass termination of federal government workers based upon allegations of homosexuality. In between 1949 and 1952, James Webb worked as the Undersecretary of State in the Truman administration, where he was accountable for implementing Executive Order 10450 and other provisions banning “subversives” from workplace.

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Webb later on served as the second Administrator for NASA (1961 to 1968) and oversaw crucial aspects of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Last year, NASA introduced an examination into Webbs history of service to identify his role in promoting anti-LGBTQI+ policies.
The Report also uses specifics on the examination, stating how Odom and his group reviewed over 50,000 pages of files from archival collections. Sources included NASAs Headquarters in Washington D.C., the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland; The Truman Presidential Library; and secondary sources about the period. Of particular interest was the firing of Clifford J. Norton, a NASA GS-14 budget plan expert, who was fired and detained in 1963.
Upon review, the authors mention that they found no evidence that Webb was either “a leader or advocate” of these policies. Particularly, they mention that:
” The report found Webbs main participation was to try to limit Congressional access to the workers records of the Department of State. None of the proof found links Webb to actions or follow-up in pursuit of shootings after these discussions.”

Images from Hubble (left) and Webb (ideal) show Dimorphos several hours after NASAs Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) impacted the moonlet. Courtesy NASA/ESA/CSA/ STScI.
” Irrespective of whether James Webb and what his function was in the Lavender Scare in the 50s and 60s, what his function was in making or keeping NASA a place where gay people were not welcome, and regardless of how that tradition plays out today in 2022s America– all of which I believe are legitimate problems– this telescope should never ever have actually been called the James Webb Space Telescope since that is not how we name telescopes. “This is not a name that is reflective of astronomy, astrophysics, or the neighborhood.
For the time being, NASA administrators appear satisfied with their investigation of the matter and are putting it to rest. For numerous people, extending far beyond the scientific and LGBTQI+ communities, the choice suggests a recalcitrant attitude and not due procedure. Fortunately is that there is still lots of time for NASA to relabel the jwst and reassess to something that shows the physics and astronomy it is investigating and the values NASA claims it supports. If not, it seems reasonable to state that the JWST will leave behind a tainted legacy.
Further Reading: NASA.
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Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez
Suffice it to say, this decision has left many dissatisfied and annoyed, who see this as the most recent indication that systemic discrimination and intolerance are still a part of the system. For lots of people, this decision has actually highlighted how organizations today continue to provide lip service and a mentioned commitment to alter instead of taking steps to guarantee it. Jason Wright is a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and a member of the Sexual and Gender Minority Alliance (SGMA), the committee which encourages the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on LGBTQ+ issues.
Throughout the examination, Wright led the effort to learn what NASA was doing about this and spoke with Odom about his research study into Webbs possible role in the Lavender Scare. For starters, Wright used criticisms of the investigation itself and how it analyzed Webbs involvement in the firing of LGBTQI+ staff members. As the NASA historians who conducted the Report specified in the Executive Summary, “The main purpose of this examination was to locate any proof that might show whether James Webb served as a leader of or proponent for shooting LGBTQI+ workers from the federal labor force.”
As Wright countered via Twitter, this narrow focus prevents the problem of renaming:
” As expected, it looks like NASA asked the historians to focus on a narrow question thats only part of the rationale for relabeling JWST. The bar for putting a name on the most essential telescope in a generation should be a bit greater than that, no?” That stated, the proof we understood about is still there: shooting LGBT+ people at NASA was customized within the company when Webb was administrator.

The very first JWST images were released by NASA on July 22nd, 2022. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/ STScI.
As he further described on his site (AstroWright), the choice to keep the name is a slap in the face to every LGBT person working at NASA today. “Think for a minute about the LGBT NASA employees dealing with JWST today,” he composed. “They wish to be happy of their work, pleased with the telescope, happy as LGBT NASA staff members. But just to use the name of the telescope is to call a male who, undisputedly, would have had them fired. This feels perverse to me.”.
Another point of contention is how the JWST was named in the very first location, which broke with convention. Previous observatories, such as Spitzer, Chandra, Compton, and the age-old Hubble Space Telescope (NASAs Great Observatories), were all called after the scientific concepts they were investigating or the scientists who helped advance the field. The choice process was done via contests and assessment with astronomers, global partners, lawmakers, policymakers, chosen authorities, and the teams responsible for developing the observatories.
Such was not the case with the JWST, nevertheless. In 2002, Sean OKeefe (NASAs Administrator from 2001 to 2004) decided to call Webb without the typical consultations or contest process. As Forbes senior factor Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist and science communicator, related:.
This is not a telescope called for astronomers. I think that the idea that you can have one administrator can name this observatory after another administrator– I think its the height of absurdity.

NASA has actually revealed the release of the James Webb History Report, a document detailing their examination into the name of the next-generation space telescope that took to space on December 25th, 2021. Sources included NASAs Headquarters in Washington D.C., the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland; The Truman Presidential Library; and secondary sources about the duration. In 2002, Sean OKeefe (NASAs Administrator from 2001 to 2004) made the choice to name Webb without the usual assessments or contest procedure.” Irrespective of whether James Webb and what his function was in the Lavender Scare in the 50s and 60s, what his function was in making or keeping NASA a location where gay people were not welcome, and regardless of how that legacy plays out today in 2022s America– all of which I think are legitimate issues– this telescope should never have actually been called the James Webb Space Telescope since that is not how we name telescopes. The excellent news is that there is still plenty of time for NASA to relabel the jwst and reevaluate to something that reflects the physics and astronomy it is examining and the values NASA declares it supports.