Why I will not write about JWST

My NASA LEGO collection, including the "women of NASA" set and the Space Shuttle Discovery set that included the Hubble Space Telescope.
My NASA LEGO collection, including the “women of NASA” set and the Space Shuttle Discovery set that included the Hubble Space Telescope.

[Updated: I wrote this piece very quickly and as a result it was not well-written at all. I’ve gone through and fixed a few typos and other errors, leaving the terrible writing in place to avoid accusations of tinkering with the piece after the fact.]

Today (July 11, 2022), the first images from the new flagship space observatory JWST will be unveiled to the general public. It’s a major accomplishment for the scientists and engineers from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, not least since the telescope ran many years past its original timeline and far over budget, to the point where some were wondering if it would ever fly. Scientists and science journalists around the world are already celebrating the amazing science that will come out of JWST.

But not me. I will not be writing about JWST or its science. NASA destroyed any enthusiasm I had for this telescope.

To understand why, let me recap the story of the observatory’s name, where it came from, and how I somehow was singled out for attack by high-ranking NASA officials, despite being a C-list freelancer whom hardly anyone has ever heard of. For what follows, I’m not going to cite references for every single assertion, but you can find the evidence in these documents:

I also recommend watching the short documentary film “Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope“, produced by the JustSpace Alliance. Their complete sources are found in this document. Any mistakes I make are obviously mine, not my sources’.

Who Was James Webb?

Other major observatories are named for prominent scientists, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which was named for 20th century astronomer Edwin Hubble whose observations with Milton Humason helped establish the existence of other galaxies and the expansion of the Universe. JWST, however, was named by then-NASA Director Sean O’Keefe without consulting the international scientific partners in the project. He chose to honor James Webb, who was NASA’s second director, who led the agency from 1961 to 1968, an era that included the lead-up to the Apollo Moon landings.

Webb was not a scientist: his most prominent previous position was Undersecretary of State in the Truman Administration. In other words, he was a Cold War bureaucrat, with everything that entails. Among his brainchildren at the State Department was Project Troy, the first psychological warfare program targeting civilians during peacetime, which played a role in suborning multiple American universities into being part of the CIA’s agenda. So, when President John F. Kennedy picked Webb to lead NASA, he was definitely making a statement about what kind of person he wanted in charge.

However, while at State, Webb was also deeply involved in purging LGBTQ+ employees in the name of national security. The stated reason was that Soviet agents could blackmail them and compromise the government; the real reason was probably a combination of Truman’s personal homophobia and his desire to preempt Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade, looking “strong” as a result. Webb was not the public face of the “Lavender Scare” (as historian David K. Johnson describes in his book of the same name), but documents obtained from the FOIA request show that he played an active — arguably enthusiastic — part in the purge.

To make matters worse, Webb brought that same attitude to NASA, making it an agency policy to fire LGBTQ+ employees:

…the case of Clifford Norton, who had appealed against being fired from NASA for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct”. In the decision, the chief judge wrote that the person who had fired Norton had said that he was a good employee and asked whether there was a way to keep him on. Whomever he consulted in the personnel office told him that it was a “custom within the agency” to fire people for “homosexual conduct”.

(from Witze’s Nature article)

In other words, the historical evidence is strong that James Webb was responsible for anti-LGBTQ+ policies at two different government positions over a period of over 20 years. Four hundred twenty-five people lost their jobs at the State Department merely for the suggestion of being “homosexuals or sex perverts”; it’s not clear how many other than Clifford Norton may have lost their jobs at NASA. But if it was a “custom within the agency”, that tells us we don’t know the full story of the homophobic purge Webb oversaw.

As an aside, I don’t think enough has been said or written about Webb’s role in whitewashing the role of Nazis in the NASA rocketry program in the 1960s. Particularly, Wernher von Braun got literally Disneyfied, changing him from a Nazi SS officer who oversaw slave labor building the V-2 rockets that bombarded England (with many deaths among the enslaved workers and the victims of the bombs) into a lovable eccentric in Walt Disney newsreels. As historian Annie Davidson points out in her book Operation Paperclip, Webb definitely knew and helped provide cover for von Braun, which is another huge black mark on his record.

The Ghost of Bigotry Past, The Ghost of Bigotry Present

I don’t know if former NASA Director O’Keefe knew about Webb’s full record, or if he would’ve cared if he had. However, I was personally made aware of Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare in 2015, when cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein posted about it on Twitter. I did a little digging through published histories and wrote a quick piece for Forbes, where I blogged on a freelance basis at the time. If memory serves, Forbes paid $50 per blog post, which is a major part of the reason I no longer write for them (you can starve writing for those rates), so I didn’t do an exhaustive historical search, relying instead on other people’s research. (You can argue I’m even stupider for writing this blog post, for which I’m paid nothing at all.)

However, quite independent of my small contribution, Prescod-Weinstein joined forces with fellow queer astronomers Brian Nord, Sarah Tuttle, and Lucianne Walkowicz to launch a petition and hashtag #RenameJWST. They also contributed an opinion piece to Scientific American asking NASA to reconsider naming an observatory for the sake of queer astronomers and NASA employees (present and past), suggesting the “Harriet Tubman Space Telescope” as an alternative. Many astronomers, both LGBTQ+ and their allies, signed the petition and openly called for finding a new name, preferably one that celebrates NASA’s stated ideals of inclusion.

Current NASA Director Bill Nelson, however, has been openly dismissive of the idea of renaming JWST, refusing to even consider it. Officially, NASA spokespeople have stated their historical investigation has not shown Webb to be homophobic, but they have refused to provide the documents that led them to this conclusion. They also solicited comments from astronomers, but none of those people were queer or thought the issue was important.

Now it gets worse. The FOIA documents reveal that NASA’s internal investigation turned up the same information about Webb’s personal involvement in anti-LGBTQ+ persecution. Knowing this, one official even gave the green light to a hit piece on Prescod-Weinstein and me, which was written by astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi and widely shared on social media. Oluseyi claimed his own research completely exonerates Webb, before accusing both Prescod-Weinstein and me of professional misconduct. Since Oluseyi was included in the NASA back channel discussions, it seems likely he knew what he wrote was untrue, but as of this writing he has not withdrawn his essay or apologized for smearing us. (In fact, people still send me his essay as “evidence” that I’m wrong about Webb. As I wrote last year, I suspect a partial motivation for Oluseyi’s essay was a personal grudge against Prescod-Weinstein, and he used me as a weapon to attack her.)

Stakes Is High

As I write this, my social media feed is full of articles about the upcoming JWST data release that don’t mention any of the problems with the telescope’s name, and perhaps an equal number of people posting how the name choice makes them feel excluded from the excitement. I am definitely in the second category.

I really don’t want to center myself in this whole affair, because I haven’t lost my job like the hundreds of State Department and NASA employees, and I’m not made to feel uncomfortable about my gender identity as Goddard Space Flight Center workers are. I’m queer, but I’m not particularly out about it (until now, I guess!), and I doubt I was singled out for attack for that reason. As far as I know, I haven’t lost any freelancing opportunities because of what I’ve written about Webb. Other journalists and the JustSpace Alliance didn’t even think the personal attack on me was worth mentioning, and they’re right to do so: I’m not important.

However, I can’t get over the fact that NASA officials in back channels decided that it was OK to target Prescod-Weinstein and me through a proxy, to discredit us as queer muckrakers looking for trouble. (Queer muckrakers would make for a great movie, though. Hollywood, call me.) Apart from the unethical behavior on the part of NASA officials and Oluseyi, this whole thing hurts my heart because I’m a big NASA booster. I got into science because of the Voyager missions; I have so much NASA paraphernalia around my house I can’t even keep track of it all. I have the “meatball” sticker on my laptop, a “worm logo” t-shirt, and I blew a huge amount of money on the Space Shuttle/Hubble Space Telescope LEGO kit (see above).

In other words, nobody could accuse me in good faith of looking to undermine NASA because I hate them. When I criticize their decisions, it’s out of love (knowing they can do better) and out of integrity. My job as a science writer is not terribly different from that of a scientist: we don’t just publish the conclusions that we want, we (ideally at least) follow the evidence even if it leads to unpleasant places. I would accept correction if my earlier writing had been wrong about Webb, but I wasn’t, and instead a piece smearing me that was authorized by NASA officials is what stands as their response to my efforts.

In this era of increasing attacks on the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people — including direct threats from SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas — it’s all the more important that NASA acknowledge both the past harm Webb did as Director and the present harm the agency is doing by naming JWST in his honor. I don’t expect an acknowledgement much less an apology for my personal treatment, but until they change the name of the observatory, I will not write about the science it does.

I call on my fellow journalists to refuse to use the telescope’s full name and explain why they refuse to do so. Without such a refusal, I know which side of this issue they stand on, and it’s not mine. Nor do they stand with any of the queer astronomers, engineers, and members of the general public whose interests are not upheld by naming an observatory for a man whose career was devoted to ruining LGBTQ+ lives.

[As I said, I’m not getting paid for writing this piece, but I’m going to do something I hate and ask if you have any spare change, please toss a coin to your freelancer.

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2 Responses to “Why I will not write about JWST”

  1. 1 Zachary Smith July 13, 2022 at 23:40

    Calling the thing the JWST is ok, but getting all preachy about it is likely to be a self-defeating exercise.

    NASA ought to have found a better name for the simple reason the guy was a not-so-hot bureaucrat.

    As Hubble fades away, migrate the name to “the Space Telescope”.

  2. 2 Saramoira July 14, 2022 at 12:32

    I don’t think this is terrible writing at all. It is quite good, impactful and raw. Sometimes that’s what is needed. <3

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