A New Film Challenges the James Webb Telescope’s Controversial Name

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The documentary features at least 10 space experts endorsing 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 existed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” said Tessa Fisher, an astronomer at State University. Arizona. the documentalists. “I think we can do better than name a scientific instrument that has the ability to answer questions that interest everyone after a cold warrior,” says space writer and historian Audra Wolfe, author of the book. 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 to suggest names for spacecraft and rovers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Rolf Danner points out in the film, saying he has “chosen figures 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 by astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, the JWST calls it a deviation from that story.

Even before it became controversial, the name of the telescope, tentatively called the next-generation Space Telescope when work began, was at least unconventional. NASA officials generally call space telescopes near their launch and usually after prominent astronomers, as they did with the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Instead, former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe announced that the new instrument would be named after Webb, a bureaucrat who ran the agency during the Apollo program, and did so 20 years before the launch of the telescope, without consulting the astronomical community.

Now, the dispute over Webb’s legacy has overshadowed his $ 10 billion namesake, especially among LGBTQ astronomers and space enthusiasts. “If you’re a cis and direct person in astronomy, maybe that doesn’t seem so personal to you,” Walkowicz says. “For me, this has essentially ruined the delivery of these first images, which I would like to excite.”

Walkowicz and three of his colleagues asked NASA to change the name in a 2021 petition signed by more than 1,800 astronomers, many of whom hoped to use the telescope’s instruments for research. The quartet also presented their case aa American scientist opinion article last year. The lead author of this 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 noted that Ultima Thule, NASA’s initial name chosen in 2018 for a Kuiper belt object, had Nazi connotations. The agency renamed it Arrokoth the following year.

But despite the shout, NASA officials chose not to change the name of the telescope. In July 2021, the agency initiated an internal investigation, which included documents later acquired by Nature by a FOIA application. That September, current NASA administrator Bill Nelson delivered a one-sentence statement to six reporters: “At this time we have not found any evidence to justify changing the name of the James Webb space telescope.” (In response, Walkowicz resigned from NASA’s astrophysics advisory committee.) At the time, the agency did not grant interviews and did not publish any additional information.

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