HomeJames Webb: How a space telescope sparked a rift among American scientists

James Webb: How a space telescope sparked a rift among American scientists

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The James Webb Space Telescope, named after a man accused of homophobia, will exist forever. Today’s scientists are divided on it. What will happen to the future generation?

When you see a headline like “NASA refuses to rename the giant homophobic telescope,” it’s impossible to turn your back.

Or tweets that says: “So we’ll have a homophobic Nazi-loving space telescope. Is it any wonder why we’re such a screwed up country?”

Or “bringing up someone’s progressive stance on race issues to downplay their participation in homophobia is anti-Black. It uses hetcis  Black people as a shield and it erases queer Black people.”

There’s no need for a telescope to observe that astronomy in the United States is raging. It’s a discussion on prejudice, notably homophobia; historical figures we name and memorialize; responsibility; and what constitutes the truth.

In December 2021, NASA deployed its largest space telescope after Hubble.

All of this discord and disagreement could deter young scientists from entering the area, as well as detract from the interesting scientific data collection that will benefit humanity.

About James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Scientists began working on the telescope even before its predecessor, Hubble, was launched in 1990. But, according to NASA, the JWST will not succeed or replace Hubble; rather, it will extend Hubble’s range. In contrast to Hubble, it will be able to see infrared light. This might allow scientists to see past cosmic clouds of dust and gas, providing sharper images of how the first stars and galaxies formed over 13.5 billion years ago.

It has taken a very long time for the telescope to be built. It is also one of the most expensive missions in space research history, costing the United States around $10 billion from conception through the completion of its initial five-year operation.

It’s a major moment in space, so it’s logical that some people refer to the telescope as a “monument” to international space exploration.

About James Webb

From 1961 through 1968, James Webb served as NASA’s second administrator, the organization’s top executive. At the State Department, he had previously served as an undersecretary.

In honor of Webb, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe renamed the telescope the “Next Generation Space Telescope” in 2002.

As a NASA spokeswoman described it to DW, “Webb played a key role in retaining an active science program” in the agency’s early years.

When it came to the United States, the Cold War era was a moment of societal upheaval. During this time, the United States was preparing for its first lunar landing, but Apollo 11 had yet to arrive.

For the United States or any country, getting there was no easy task. The world was still recovering from World War II, making it difficult to raise the enormous quantities of money necessary to do so during this very political era.

Webb was a political operative who also kept science at the forefront of his work. Thus, the idea of naming the next space telescope after him was born.

Is there anything wrong with the original name, though? The answer was a tight-lipped no from NASA.

“Changing mission names — for example, changing the Solar Probe Plus to Parker Solar Probe in 2017 — is not uncommon,” is all NASA’s Alise Fisher wrote in reply.

Historical homophobia divided astrophysicists in America

However, astrophysicists in America are split on the name James Webb.

Some claim Webb was homophobic, and that he was involved in efforts at the State Department and NASA to marginalize, fire, and even “persecute” gays. Since Webb was named after him, it’s possible that by doing so, NASA may be promoting a legacy of prejudice and sending a negative message to future astronomers.

According to Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, “science is not removed from the questions that the rest of society grapples with — we have bias, racism, sexism, homophobia.”

Adding that the scientific community “continues to be unwelcoming to people who are LGBTQ or from marginalized identities, people of color, gender nonconforming or disabled. There are many ways in which science broadly and astrophysics more specifically is not welcoming to a lot of people.”

Even though the JWST is an example of a very high-profile project, it is “related to a broader grappling in the United States, which has come to a fever pitch with debates over monuments,” according to Walkowicz, along with whoever such monuments honor.

NASA claims it reviewed the allegations against Webb and found no evidence to back them up, and it rejects calls to remove his name off the mission.

Unfairly accused?

In his blog post “Was NASA’s Historic Leader James Webb a Bigot?” author Hakeem Oluseyi, president-elect of the National Society of Black Physicists and author of A Quantum Life, researched the claims in depth.

Oluseyi concluded that Webb was wrongfully charged and that many accusers overlooked facts about Webb’s efforts to promote racial integration and equal opportunity at NASA.

“If it had been true that James Webb had been guilty of what these people claimed he was — and it’s not true — then, yes, it would be relevant,” said Oluseyi.

Oluseyi noted that Walkowicz and his colleagues fail to contextualize the historical period and Webb’s position within it – noting, for example, that Webb was not even the State Department’s top official.

He also questioned “if Webb was just a ‘good soldier’ who when ordered to persecute gays […] did so, and when ordered to integrate NASA facilities in the South he did that, too,” in his blog post.

He believes he has additional evidence to dissociate Webb from prejudice against gay people — which Oluseyi acknowledges occurred — as well as other Cold War “security threats.”

“If you served in a leadership position in a federal government during a time when there was a federal policy that was anti- any group, you are disqualified,” he said.

As is the case with members of the LGBTQ community, Oluseyi says he is aware of how discrimination looks and feels — the psychological “radar,” that heightened sensitivity that develops over time. 

About taking responsibility

According to Walkowicz, if a director can take credit for other people’s positive work, then they can also take responsibility for their negative actions.

“There is a cartoonish understanding of what discrimination looks like,” said Walkowicz. “Do they want a picture of James Webb being mean to a gay person?”

“What would be counted as evidence, if not a NASA employee being interrogated and subsequently fired because of their sexual orientation? Does James Webb have to be in a room to be responsible?”

: This debate has become very messy. Oluseyi and Walkowicz appear to be engaged in a drunken pub brawl from the outside, with their emotions running high. This is not to imply that the argument is incorrect, but rather that it may be handled in a more sober manner. Besides, who is this author to tell us?

“We were cool for a long time,” Oluseyi said. When pressed about earlier collaborations with Oluseyi, Walkowicz remained silent.

Impact on the next generation

The way this debate is going to affect the futures of young astronomers isn’t good. 

Walkowicz says “discrimination against queer people in astronomy is a persistent problem, effects the lives and outcomes of people in the field today, including junior astronomers.”

What, on the other hand, should young scientists of all backgrounds make of tweets that criticize a Black American scientist for doubting the facts by instructing them to keep their “hetcis reading goggles” on?

A debate done like this may detract from the data that scientists say the JWST will deliver for the good of everyone.

“It is tiring. I don’t want to have to think about this. I want to get excited about the new data that this telescope will produce. All of us just want to be excited about the data,” said Walkowicz.

Oluseyi told DW that he has faced public attacks against his name and reputation.

And it invites the question: Is this how today’s young scientists should see astrophysics?

“Just like with all politics, the loud extremists are the ones who get the attention,” said Oluseyi. “And these particular loud people are well connected and very smart,” he added.

“They define the opposition, but I’m not the opposition. I want justice [like them]. I grew up under so much injustice — but I’m not thinking, let’s flip it now, and let me be on top.

“Let’s do it right.” 

Source: DW

Image Credit: NASA

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