The documentary features at least 10 space experts who support a name change. Updating the telescope’s name “would help send the message that NASA in its current era does not tolerate the same kind of intolerance that was present in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” says Tessa Fisher, a astronomer at Arizona State University. the documentaries. “I think we can do better than naming a scientific instrument that has the ability to answer questions that the whole world is interested in, after a Cold War,” says author and space historian Audra Wolfe, author of the book. The Laboratory of Freedom: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.
For the past 20 years – with the exception of this mission – NASA has had open calls for proposed names for spacecraft and rovers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Rolf Danner points out in the film, saying it has “picked numbers that are significant and can show us where we want to go in the future. ” While praising NASA’s name for its first Mars rover – after the abolitionist Sojourner Truth – and its upcoming infrared telescope named after astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, he calls JWST a departure from that story.
Even before it became controversial, the naming of the telescope – tentatively called the Next Generation Space Telescope when the work began – was at least unconventional. NASA officials generally name space telescopes near their launch and usually after prominent astronomers, as they did with the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. In contrast, former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe announced that the new instrument would be named after Webb, a bureaucrat who headed the agency under the Apollo program – and he did so 20 years before the telescope was launched without consulting the astronomical community.
Now, the controversy over Webb’s legacy has cast a shadow over his namesake of $ 10 billion, especially among LGBTQ astronomers and space fans. “If you’re a person who’s cis and straight in astronomy, then it might not seem so personal to you,” Walkowicz says. “For me, this has essentially ruined the delivery of these first images, which I would like to be excited about.”
Walkowicz and three of their colleagues called on NASA to change its name in 2021 petition signed by more than 1,800 astronomers, many of whom hoped to use the telescope’s instruments for research. The quartet also did their case in one Scientific American opinion polls last year. The lead author of the piece, Harvard astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, had for years raised concerns on social media about homophobic policies during Webb’s tenure at NASA. She and others also pointed out that Ultima Thule, NASA’s original name chosen in 2018 for a Kuiper belt object, had Nazi connotations. The agency renamed it Arrokoth the following year.
But despite the call, NASA officials chose not to rename the telescope. In July 2021, the Agency launched an internal investigation, which included the documents later acquired by Nature via a FOIA request. In September, current NASA administrator Bill Nelson issued a one-sentence statement to six journalists: “We have not found any evidence at present that justifies changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” (In response, Walkowicz resigned from NASA’s Astrophysical Advisory Committee.) At that time, the Agency did not provide any interviews and did not release any further information.