Based on the JWST Controversy, NASA is re-Evaluating the way it Names Spacecraft

In 2015, the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) became the subject of controversy when it was revealed that the namesake (NASA’s administrator between 1961 and 1968) was involved in the infamous “Lavender Scare.” This refers to the period in the late 1940s and early 50s when the U.S. State Department purged thousands of individuals from their positions due to allegations of homosexuality. In 2021, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson requested a formal and public report and tasked NASA’s Chief Historian Brian C. Odom with investigating the matter.

In their final report, titled “NASA Historical Investigation into James E. Webb’s Relationship to the Lavender Scare” (aka. the NASA James Webb Historical Report). In it, NASA claimed that their investigation found no direct evidence that Webb was a “leader of or a proponent” of the policy; therefore, they would not be renaming the JWST. In a surprise twist, it appears that NASA may reexamine its naming policy and recommend changes. According to a statement released by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Administrator Nelson agreed that the policy needs to be reevaluated.

“Many AAS members are concerned about the response of NASA to the JWST name and process, and we wanted to provide a brief update,” stated the AAS Board of Trustees. “In response to our most recent letter, Administrator Nelson replied that NASA’s Acting Chief Historian as well as a contract historian were reviewing records and that NASA would share the findings publicly after completion. Nelson also agreed that the mission naming policy for NASA must be reexamined and that will also be shared. We await these results.”

This is unsurprising, considering how the JWST got its name in the first place. Beyond the controversy surrounding Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare, the naming met with backlash from the scientific community because it broke with tradition. Unlike previous observatories named after the scientists or the principles they were investigating (all of NASA’s Great Observatories), Webb was named by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe (2001 to 2004). O’Keefe did this without the usual consultations or contest process and selected a name that had no bearing on the observatory’s mission.

NASA’s decision not to rename the observatory has naturally met with anger and disappointment from the LGBTQI+, scientific, and other communities. Jason Wright, a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, is also a member of the Sexual and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA), the committee that advises the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on LGBTQ+ issues. During the investigation, Wright led the effort to learn more about NASA’s investigation and even spoke personally to Odom about the matter. As Wright stated on his website (AstroWright):

“At this point, NASA’s resistance has gone from stubbornness to recalcitrance. Already, NASA employees are refusing to use the name in prominent publications. The Royal Astronomical Society says it expects authors of MNRAS not to use the name. The American Astronomical Society has twice asked the administrator to reopen the naming process (and received no response!). This is an error that only grows as NASA refuses to fix it.

The AAS statement also included a reminder about the policy regarding their scientific journals, which states that “the acronym JWST need not be spelled out upon its first use in scientific papers.” At this juncture, it’s not entirely clear if what the AAS related in their statement is representative of any actual plans on behalf of Nelson or if this was merely lip service from the Administrator. Regardless, the administration’s refusal to rename the JWST, coupled with their apparent willingness to revisit their naming policies, sends an admittedly mixed message.

Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA
Illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA

For starters, NASA has a specific policy regarding the naming of spacecraft, probes, and missions that has been in place since the early 1960s and Project Mercury. This policy was established by the then-named Ad Hoc Committee to Name Space Projects and Objects, founded in 1960. Based on the precedent established with the Explorer and Pioneer spacecraft, the committee emphasized that “flight names should be suggested of the mission and reflect the series of which they were a part.”

This is known as the “Cortright” system, which the Project Designation Committee adopted in 1961. As per the NASA Management Instruction 4-3-1 (NMI):

“Each project name will be a simple euphonic word that will not duplicate or be confused with other NASA or non-NASA project titles. When possible and if appropriate, names will be chosen to reflect NASA’s mission. Project names will be serialized when appropriate, thus limiting the number of different names in use at any one time; however, serialization will be used only after successful flight or accomplishment has been achieved.”

In 2000, the administration instituted NASA Policy Directive 7620.1I (NPD), which made a few minor addendums to their naming procedure. As per the policy, naming missions is the responsibility of NASA administrators and assistant administrators to:

“Initiate the name selection process by assembling an ad hoc name selection team consisting of one member representing the office in which a project name is under consideration, e.g., Science Mission Directorate, and one member representing every other NASA Headquarters office participating in the management of a significant element of or having other major involvement in the project. This will include the Public Affairs Officer co-located in the NASA Headquarters program office initiating the name selection process. The Official-in-Charge will lead the team or designate a leader.”

1963 photo showing Dr. William H. Pickering, (center) JPL Director, President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James Webb in the background. Credit: NASA

Once assembled, the ad-hoc special project name team must solicit suggestions, particularly from the “responsible NASA Centers and contractors.” After completing deliberations, they are required to make specific recommendations to the Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications. The A.A. for the Office of Communications is then responsible for reviewing the recommendations of this special committee, making a selection, and submitting it to the Administrator for final approval.

However, this process is often implemented informally. As former NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry described:

“The Official-in-Charge of the appropriate NASA Headquarters office is responsible for identifying missions that need a name and assembling a committee to recommend names. How that committee works is up to the Official in Charge and there really isn’t a “preferred” method [for naming craft]. Most of the proposals come with a name chosen by the Principal Investigator and NASA normally adopts these names.”

None of these procedures were followed regarding the name selection for the JWST. In this case, the name was chosen in 2004 by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe (2001-2004) without going through the usual channels. As such, a review of the naming procedures would seem entirely redundant at this time, as they were not followed. And as noted, it is unclear why a review of the naming process is needed if NASA insists on keeping the name for the JWST.

In short, it’s an admittedly mixed message and could be little more than lip service. Time will tell!

Further Reading: AAS