Despite opposition from some scientists, including one who quit from an advisory council in protest, NASA authorities are sticking by their decision to keep the James Webb Space Telescope’s name. A historical study found no evidence to support charges that James Webb oversaw measures to purge the State Department of LGBTQ personnel earlier in his career, as well as one example involving a NASA worker while Webb headed the agency in the 1960s, according to a one-sentence statement released by the agency in late September.
In a message to the public, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “At this time, we have discovered no evidence that warrants altering the name of James Webb Space Telescope.” Officials with the agency stated that they have no more information, such as a report, to share regarding the review. Many of the astronomers who signed the petition to rename the JWST complained about both the choice and the lack of information about it. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, resigned from the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), as a result.
“NASA’s handling of the issues surrounding James Webb as a candidate for naming its upcoming flagship project has made a mockery of this committee,” Walkowicz said in an open letter dated October 12 to APAC, stressing that the agency had been asked about the problem for the past year. A “flippant, pathetic answer” was the one-sentence reply.
NASA did disclose more details regarding the study at an APAC conference the next day. Brian Odom, Acting NASA Chief Historian spoke about the investigation into the claims against Webb that he directed. “What we discovered was that there was no evidence with the information we had,” he concluded. That isn’t to say there isn’t proof. It suggests that in our investigation, we uncovered no evidence.”
Interviews with historians who have previously examined Webb were conducted, as well as a study of their research. The agency also employed a contract historian to comb over records, but he pointed out that many of those archives are still closed as a result of the pandemic. “As of right now, we concluded there is no direct proof based on the historical material we have and the analysis we’ve done on the existing material.”
Odom stated that no report summarizing those results was in the works. “As of present, there is no official report and no intention of putting one together,” he stated. “Throughout this investigation, all of my communications with the administrator as well as the administrator’s office were simply stating that there was no proof to report at this time.”
Odom went on to say that he was impressed with Nelson’s approach to the subject during those meetings. He remarked, “He absolutely gave me the idea that he was examining at this objectively and that he did need to see the facts.”