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 announced the release of the James Webb History Report, a document detailing their investigation into the namesake of the next-generation space telescope that took to space on December 25th, 2021. Months before it launched, the observatory became the subject of controversy when it was revealed that Webb was involved in the so-called “Lavender Scare.” After reviewing the relevant documents and collections located by their historians, NASA decided not to rename its flagship observatory.

The Final Report, titled “NASA Historical Investigation into James E. Webb’s Relationship to the Lavender Scare,” was compiled by NASA Chief Historian Brian C. Odom (Ph.D., MLIS) and can be accessed through NASA’s servers.

To break it down, the Lavender Scare coincided with McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare that took place during the late-1940s to mid-1950s. It was characterized by the mass dismissal of government personnel based on allegations of homosexuality. Between 1949 and 1952, James Webb served as the Undersecretary of State in the Truman administration, where he was responsible for implementing Executive Order 10450 and other provisions banning “subversives” from office.

Webb later served as the second Administrator for NASA (1961 to 1968) and oversaw key aspects of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Amid the controversy over his possible role in the Lavender Scare, there were calls from the public and scientific community to rename the flagship space telescope. Last year, NASA launched an investigation into Webb’s history of service to determine his role in promoting anti-LGBTQI+ policies. These policies were eventually overturned in 1975 due to lawsuits (like the historic Norton vs. Macy trial of 1969).

The Report also offers specifics on the investigation, saying how Odom and his team reviewed over 50,000 pages of documents from archival collections. Sources included NASA’s 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 analyst, who was fired and arrested in 1963.

As per the Executive Summary, NASA cited its commitment to openness and tolerance, stating that “[b]uilding a more inclusive future requires we honestly and openly confront our history, including the times when the federal government has fallen short of supporting LGBTQI+ communities.” However, upon review, the authors state that they found no evidence that Webb was either “a leader or proponent” of these policies. Specifically, they state that:

“The report found Webb’s primary involvement was to attempt to limit Congressional access to the personnel records of the Department of State. None of the evidence found links Webb to actions or follow-up in pursuit of firings after these discussions.”

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Suffice it to say, this decision has left many disappointed and outraged, who see this as the latest indication that systemic discrimination and intolerance are still a part of the system. For many people, this decision has highlighted how organizations today continue to offer lip service and a stated commitment to change rather than taking measures to ensure 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 advises the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on LGBTQ+ issues.

During the investigation, Wright led the effort to learn what NASA was doing about this and spoke to Odom about his research into Webb’s possible role in the Lavender Scare. For starters, Wright offered criticisms of the investigation itself and how it interpreted Webb’s involvement in the firing of LGBTQI+ employees. As the NASA historians who conducted the Report stated in the Executive Summary, “The central purpose of this investigation was to locate any evidence that could indicate whether James Webb acted as a leader of or proponent for firing LGBTQI+ employees from the federal workforce.”

As Wright countered via Twitter, this narrow focus avoids the issue of renaming:

“As expected, it looks like NASA asked the historians to focus on a narrow question that’s only part of the rationale for renaming JWST. Of course, being a “leader or proponent for firing LBGTQ+ employees” would be disqualifying. But the bar for putting a name on the most important telescope in a generation should be a bit higher than that, no?

“That said, the evidence we knew about is still there: firing LGBT+ people at NASA was ‘custom within the agency’ when Webb was administrator. He may not have been a ‘leader or proponent’ of that policy, but neither did he resist or minimize it. He must have been aware of it.”

The first JWST images were released by NASA on July 22nd, 2022. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

As he further explained on his website (AstroWright), the decision to keep the name is a slap in the face to every LGBT person working at NASA today. “Think for a moment about the LGBT NASA employees working on JWST today,” he wrote. “They want to be proud of their work, proud of the telescope, proud as LGBT NASA employees. But just to use the name of the telescope is to name a man who, undisputedly, would have had them fired. This feels perverse to me.”

Another point of contention is how the JWST was named in the first place, which broke with convention. Previous observatories, such as Spitzer, Chandra, Compton, and the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (NASA’s Great Observatories), were all named after the scientific principles they were investigating or the scientists who helped advance the field. Moreover, the selection process was done via contests and consultation with astronomers, international partners, lawmakers, policymakers, elected officials, and the teams responsible for building the observatories.

Such was not the case with the JWST, however. In 2002, Sean O’Keefe (NASA’s Administrator from 2001 to 2004) made the decision to name Webb without the usual consultations or contest process. As Forbes senior contributor Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist and science communicator, related:

“He unilaterally gave the telescopes [its] name, and the community never had an opportunity to have their input listened to at all. This is not a telescope named for astronomers. And when you’re putting out the message that this is ‘your telescope,’ that this ‘telescope is for you,’ that this is ‘humanity’s telescope.’ I think that the idea that you can have one administrator can name this observatory after another administrator – I think it’s the height of absurdity.

DART hits an asteroid.
Images from Hubble (left) and Webb (right) show Dimorphos several hours after NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) impacted the moonlet. Courtesy NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

“Irrespective of whether James Webb and what his role was in the Lavender Scare in the 50s and 60s, what his role was in making or keeping NASA a place 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 been named the James Webb Space Telescope because that is not how we name telescopes.

This is not a name that is reflective of astronomy, astrophysics, or the community. This is a name that was given to us by outside forces, and now they tell us to live with it, regardless of who the name hurts. I hope that that is the sort of thing that we look back on through the eyes of history and say, ‘Oh, my, isn’t this something that we should all be ashamed of? That we did this and thought it was okay?”

For the time being, NASA administrators appear satisfied with their investigation of the matter and are putting it to rest. But for many people, extending far beyond the scientific and LGBTQI+ communities, the decision indicates a recalcitrant attitude and not due process. The good news is that there is still plenty of time for NASA to reconsider and rename the JWST to something that reflects the physics and astronomy it is investigating and the values NASA claims it supports. If not, it seems fair to say that the JWST will leave behind a tainted legacy.

Further Reading: NASA

One Reply to “NASA's Report Details a Dark Time in American History but Finds no Direct Evidence That Webb Fired People for Their Sexual Orientation”

  1. Interesting, thanks for this. I’m in complete agreement with Ethan Siegel – it ought to have been named after an astronomer. As for the LBGT issue, while I don’t condone discrimination, I just don’t understand why they don’t keep their sexuality to themselves – parading it to the world smacks of malignant narcissism to me (narcissists are now considered by many psychologists to be a sub-type of psychopath)…

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