No place for homophobia on Earth, so why in space?

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In December, NASA is set to launch their most powerful telescope yet. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is argued by many to be “the next Hubble.” The telescope in question is hoped to shine a light on currently unobserved areas of the universe and perhaps uncover new habitable galaxies. Sadly, this telescope is not making headlines for its ability to look deeper into the universe than any predecessor, but instead for the controversial figure for whom it is named.

James Webb was a civil servant in the U.S. Department of State during the presidency of Harry Truman. He is positively remembered for his work on overseeing the Apollo, Mariner and Pioneer space programs. Conversely, however, his legacy is tainted by his role in executing a policy at the time – the extraditing of any LGBT persons from the federal workplace.

His legacy is tainted by his role in … the extraditing of any LGBT persons from the federal workplace

Some argue that Webb was merely complicit in backing common attitudes during the 1950s and that there is sparse evidence he was responsible for enacting these policies. Thus, Webb was just acting as a product of his context. John Logsdon, Professor at the George Washington University and an acquaintance of Webb, seconds this, claiming that Webb was “a product of the value system of his time.” Logsdon even goes further to argue that Webb didn’t take “any particular actions that were unacceptable at the time.” However, it’s not the 1950s anymore.

Despite a lack of clearly incriminating evidence, there are still records that reveal Webb’s involvement in homophobic meetings. Moreover, it should be considered that inaction when faced with injustice is evidence of complicity – which, when it comes to homophobia should not be tolerated. So, why has NASA refused to rename the telescope?

Earlier this year, two popular scientific journals, Scientific America and Nature, both ran articles pressing NASA to change the name of the JWST considering the controversy around James Webb. This led to an investigation from NASA that regrettably concluded in the organisation finding “no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name”. This, in my eyes, is unacceptable. Whilst there may not be any record of Webb directly persecuting queer workers, there is also no record of him standing up for those being objected to inhumane treatment whilst under his management.

This decision by NASA is particularly insensitive, even now. When considering the vast progress made in attitudes towards queer persons since 1950, humanity, and science administrations, still need to do better. A 2016 report from the American Physical Society made the principal finding that LGBT scientists didn’t feel safe in their places of work as they must put up with harassment and marginalisation. Unfortunately, findings from a more recent 2021 study in Science Advances have echoed these outcomes.

It is ironic that the name James Webb … should be associated with something as truly astonishing and freeing as the exploration of the cosmos

Thus, it is ironic that the name James Webb, a man whose tainted legacy restrained many queer individuals, should be associated with something as truly astonishing and freeing as the exploration of the cosmos. While there’s no doubt this remarkable telescope will offer great insight into the universe’s past, it’s a shame that we have failed to learn from our own.

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