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Alice Gorman (will open in a new tab)Associate Professor, Department of Archeology and Space Studies, Flinders University
The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are amazing. With its deep infrared eyes, the telescope illuminates regions of the universe with clarity never seen before.
The telescope is the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. over 300 (will open in a new tab) Universities, companies, space agencies and organizations participate.
In the excitement, it’s easy to forget that the Webb telescope has been the subject of controversy. It is named after a NASA administrator who was associated (will open in a new tab) with the persecution of queer people in the “Lavender Panic” of the 1950s and 60s.
Behind the Name: The James Webb Space Telescope explores the troubled legacy of the observatory’s namesake, James Webb, who led NASA during the Cold War and was widely said to have been heavily involved in the federal government’s purge of gay employees. pic.twitter.com/B7sywTrUVWJuly 15, 2022
Read more: The Space Time Machine: How the James Webb Space Telescope Lets Us See the First Galaxies in the Universe (will open in a new tab)
Who was James E. Webb?
James Edwin Webb was born in 1906. (will open in a new tab) in North Carolina. He received degrees in education and law (will open in a new tab) and spent time in the United States Marine Corps.
He held a senior position in the State Department from 1949 until the early 1950s.
In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy appointed (will open in a new tab) Webb as NASA administrator, second (will open in a new tab) since the agency was founded in 1958.
In this role, he was responsible for the Apollo program. (will open in a new tab) put people on the moon. He was very successful in lobbying for Congressional support and also guiding NASA through the difficult aftermath of the incident that killed three Apollo 1 astronauts. (will open in a new tab) in a capsule of fire on the ground.
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Webb insisted that science be a priority in the Cold War, when every space mission was a political tool. He also promoted (will open in a new tab) “psychological warfare” (will open in a new tab)(or propaganda).
Webb left NASA in 1968. (will open in a new tab) before Apollo 11 flew to the moon. In later life, he served on various advisory boards and was associated with the Smithsonian Institution, the US flagship cluster of museums, educational and research centers. He died in 1992.
What is Lavender Fear?
During the Cold War, Western capitalist democracies feared communist infiltration. This became known as the “Red Menace”. (will open in a new tab)“Lavender Fear” (will open in a new tab)“was intertwined with this paranoia.
Proponents of these ideas argued (will open in a new tab) that due to the social stigma associated with their sexuality, LGBTQ+ people were at risk of being blackmailed into becoming Soviet spies. Since the late 1940s, under the influence of Republican politician Joseph McCarthy. (will open in a new tab)LGBTQ+ purged (will open in a new tab) from the US government.
Webb’s exact role in The Lavender Panic is hotly debated. Several astronomers are petitioning (will open in a new tab) to rename the telescope, noted that Webb (while at the State Department) participated in high-level meetings about the Lavender Scare policy.
Article in Scientific American (will open in a new tab) Last year, the authors, led by cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, wrote:
“The tapes clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he passed on homophobic material. There is no record of him deciding to stand up for the humanity of those who are being persecuted.”
But according to a 2021 Nature article. (will open in a new tab)“David Johnson, a historian at the University of South Florida at Tampa who wrote the 2004 book The Lavender Panic, says he has no evidence that Webb directed or instigated the persecution. gays, but the context of the meeting was to contain the hysteria fueled by members of Congress. “I don’t see him playing any leadership role in the lavender scare,” says Johnson.
Would it have been better if Webb had passively pursued policy rather than led the prosecution? Other government departments actively opposed (will open in a new tab) investigation and dismissal of LGBTQ+ employees.
Echoes of controversy
Space instruments are usually named in a consultation process, often with an invitation from the public to share their ideas. It’s also not unusual for spaceship names to change. For example, the Gamma Observatory in 1991. (will open in a new tab) was renamed in honor of the physicist Arthur Holly Compton. (will open in a new tab) after its launch.
The name of the Webb telescope was reportedly chosen (will open in a new tab) by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keeffe in 2002.
Official response from NASA. (will open in a new tab) the controversy is that “there is currently no evidence to justify changing the name of the telescope.”
Whatever Webb’s role in Lavender Panic, the question for some observers comes down to whether he was personally homophobic.
This formulation of the question has echoes of another dispute: the complicity of the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. (will open in a new tab) in the Third Reich.
Von Braun, Nazi Party member and SS officer. (will open in a new tab)played a key role in the US space program.
Today, NASA mentions von Braun’s Nazi past on their website. (will open in a new tab). But space historian Michael J. Neufeld says (will open in a new tab) “his Nazi record was not widely known until after his death.”
Many justify von Braun’s political loyalty by saying that he simply wanted to launch rockets into space.
Read more: Two experts break down the first images of the James Webb Space Telescope and explain what we’ve learned so far (will open in a new tab)
Where from here?
The James Webb Space Telescope is a touchstone for questions that have come to the fore in recent times.
For example, there has been a backlash against the memorialization of colonial “heroes” who committed violence against indigenous peoples and enslaved people, leading to the toppling of statues around the world. (will open in a new tab).
Some denounce the idea of inclusion as the highest degree of “awakening”. Others argue that the persistence of historical barriers to participation in science—based on race, class, gender, and disability—means we are losing potential talent.
Science must be objective and without prejudice. In fact, scientists and leaders of science are people like everyone else, with their own ideologies and shortcomings.
The question is whether we judge them by the standards of their time or by the standards we hold today.
After all, perhaps we should remember that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (will open in a new tab) proclaims that the cosmos belongs all humanity.
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