NOEL KING, HOST:
In December, NASA will launch the most powerful telescope ever put into space. The James Webb Space Telescope is named for the man who led NASA in the 1960s while it was racing to put astronauts on the moon. But hundreds of scientists object to naming the telescope after him. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains why that is.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: James Webb became head of NASA in 1961, just months before President John Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon.
JOHN LOGSDON: He was a consummate Washington insider. He knew how to work both Congress and the executive branch.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Space historian John Logsdon is with George Washington University. He knew Webb.
LOGSDON: He told Kennedy when he was asked to take the job, I'm not a scientist; you should have a scientist. And Kennedy said, no, I want a policy person.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Traditionally, space telescopes are named after famous scientists, not policy people. So why is Webb's name on the telescope? Because of Sean O'Keefe. He admired Webb. And a couple decades ago, when O'Keefe was the head of NASA, the agency was starting on a big new space telescope. O'Keefe casually asked folks how they'd feel about naming it after Webb.
SEAN O'KEEFE: There was not a formal process. There was no panel. There was no appointed group of commissioners to come up with the name. No, it was more of a - what do you think of this idea?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: No one objected, so Webb got the honor. Recently, though, some scientists and historians have raised concerns that Webb was complicit in the lavender scare of the 1950s and 1960s, when gay government workers were interrogated and fired. For example, NASA employee Clifford Norton lost his job and later sued. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire. She wants the telescope renamed.
CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: At best, Webb's record is complicated/not great. And at worst, we're basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Over 1,200 astronomers and space enthusiasts signed a letter asking NASA to reconsider the name. The agency said it would investigate the matter. Now, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has put out a statement saying, quote, "we have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope." But NASA hasn't provided any other information about the investigation. This frustrates Prescod-Weinstein.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I really just want to see rationale, and I want to see openness. And right now we're not seeing either, and that breaks my heart.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says, as a black, queer scientist, this is hard to hear from the space agency she loves.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS SONG, "VEGA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.