February 1, 2023

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NASA is bending under the pressure.  The end of the Webb telescope era

NASA is bending under the pressure. The end of the Webb telescope era

The JWST space telescope is named after NASA’s second director, who led the Apollo program until 1968. So the name seems well chosen, but there’s really a lot of controversy associated with it.

The names of observatories, especially those in space, sometimes come from people who have made a significant contribution to the history of science and technology. The European Space Agency usually uses names associated with this distant scientific and cultural legacy. And so we have observatories like Hipparcos, who has already finished his work, or just planned Euclid and Plato. There are also names associated with scientific symbols from this recent history, such as the XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory (also finished).

NASA usually does not delve into history, and the names, as in the case of the European Space Agency, refer to these Kepler scientists, or those from history close to us, that is, the well-known Hubble. However, there are also space observatories whose names come from the names of people who lived recently, when our website existed.


Parker Solar Probe. There could be no better name for this cosmic observatory that periodically passes through the solar corona. It is also not surprising that for the first time such a scientific instrument was named after a living person

The Chandra X-ray Observatory of the late 20th century was named after the late Subrahmanyanian Chandrasekhar, who developed the theory of white dwarfs. Among the probes that are still running, we have this corona exploration, the Parker Solar Probe. Its name comes from Eugene Parker, who died this year, a solar researcher and author of the term solar wind. These names, like Hubble, are very appropriate, as they match the nature of the research device.

JWST or colloquially Webb – a telescope whose name is not well justified

The Webb telescope is also named after a man who made history, this time exploring the solar system. However, he is not an astronomer, but the second NASA official in history, who in the years 1961-1968 oversaw the American program for a manned flight to the Moon. During its existence, the Apollo program took shape and approached the most important stage, the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on the moon.

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Gemini Web Simulator
James E. Web in the Gemini capsule emulator

However, when you look closely at the telescope’s name, it’s hard to justify that name to the same extent as the designation of other observatories and space probes. After all, an observatory dedicated to exploring the secrets of the universe in infrared, and such a powerful observatory, could have the name of a man closely associated with this field of astronomical observation. Herschel, the astronomer who discovered infrared radiation, has already been used. The Spitzer Observatory, also an infrared telescope, is named after Lyman Spitzer, who proposed the idea of ​​space telescopes.

Web task
Some of the tasks that belong to the Webb telescope, such as observing the most distant galaxies, and accurately characterizing the composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets

The history of infrared astronomy knows many names and it would be difficult to name just one, but what would you say about the name of the Low or Johnson telescope? Frank Low was the first astronomer to make observations in the 35 to 350 micron range, thanks to an instrument cooled by liquid helium that he built. This is beyond what Webb can do. In turn, Harold L. Johnson developed the first system for classifying the brightness of infrared objects.

The fact is that the colloquial name of the JWST telescope, that is, Webb, is very minimalistic, easy to pronounce and write and does not immediately evoke associations with a specific person in every person. It is difficult to associate the acronym JWST, or James Webb Space Telescope, if it is not developed.

Why is the name of the JWST telescope controversial? What did Webb do or not do?

Webb’s naming in 2002 was, and still is, highly controversial. It is not just that the name was chosen arbitrarily, without logical consultation, or that Webb was not an astronomer. But it also honors someone who belongs to a group of people who discriminate against the LGBT community (referred to today as LGBTQI+, which includes a much larger group of people who identify differently than the majority of society). Today, we are generally more enlightened in this regard, and while there is no shortage of people with ossified views, homosexuality does not arouse such fear as at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century.

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Perhaps if Webb were a man who played such an important role in the history of infrared astronomy, the subject of his opinions would not be so important. Thus the combination of an unfortunate, scientifically justified name with someone associated with the phenomenon of social discrimination became the catalyst for the debate over the name of the telescope.

At the time, James E. Webb, Undersecretary of State in the US government of Harry Truman. 10 years before he was elected director of NASA. At a time when the US authorities, as well as other countries, removed people from prominent positions simply because they were homosexuals. Just think of Alan Turing, whose tendencies became the cause of his persecution and ultimately his destruction as a human being.

Webb Debus Brown
An image that has nothing to do with the space telescope issue, but it shows that progress in space exploration is associated with the names of people who do not have a beautiful past. Here, James E. Webb (left) presents the NASA Group Achievement Award to Kurt H. Debus, today’s first director of the Kennedy Center. The show is accompanied by Wernher von Braun. The last two are war trophies that previously participated in the V-2 missile program

NASA has repeatedly refused to change the name of the JWST telescope to another

The problem of an unsuitable sponsor for the currently most powerful space telescope became red in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, when the issue of the equality of people, regardless of origin, opinions and sexual orientation, became a lively topic. Public debate. Earlier, in the early 2000s, when the name for the future telescope was being hatched, Webb’s name was accepted by the scientific community, or at least the voices against it were not loud enough.

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Sean O’Keefe, who was the tenth director of NASA and it was during that time that the telescope was named after James Webb, saw nothing wrong with Webb’s behavior during his time in the government department. O’Keefe saw what Webb was doing at the time, discriminating against homosexuals, as something that was the norm in society at the time.

Even before the telescope’s launch in late 2021, NASA analyzed the situation and concluded that there was no reason to consider Webb unworthy of the telescope’s name. While the argument that it relates to infrared astronomy is lacking, it remains valid.

NASA is once again thinking about a proper name for the Webb Telescope

And so we have the Web in space, which is taking great pictures, and I don’t think any of you are looking at it and exploring the science related to it, think about what was described above. However, the debate still persisted, and NASA, under pressure from members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), among others, decided to reconsider the validity of the telescope’s name. The AAS is one organization that is not interested in expanding the JWST acronym in scholarly articles, and even suggests that it should not be done.

As confirmed by current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement provided to the AAS, NASA historians are re-examining historical documents pertaining to the person of James E. Of course, this does not mean that the name will be changed, but if it is not just a blurb, who knows what the investigation will bring in the end.

Changing Webb’s or JWST’s name to something else wouldn’t be a first in the history of astronomy and space exploration, but it might be a first, which may have been caused by confusion about the authority of the patron.

Credit: AAS, NASA, INF. king