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James Webb’s Role in Purge of LGBTQ+ NASA Workers Prompts Push to Name Telescope After Harriet Tubman

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Image Credit: The JustSpace Alliance

The release of the first images from NASA’s new flagship James Webb Space Telescope brought renewed attention to the controversy over naming the telescope after James Webb, who led NASA ahead of the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s. He also played a key role in purging LGBTQ+ people from NASA in what was known as the “lavender scare,” and before that at the State Department under President Truman. We speak with Lucianne Walkowicz, one of four astronomers who led a petition to rename the telescope. Although the petitioners value the insights the telescope contributes, “the way that NASA has dug in its heels about naming the telescope after James Webb has really cast a pall over that,” says Walkowicz. They are also the co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, which made a new documentary about the push to rename the telescope. We feature an extended excerpt from “Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope,” which also examines the push to name the telescope after Harriet Tubman, who “observed the night sky and used the stars for celestial navigation in the service of … people’s freedom.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

The release of the first images from NASA’s new flagship James Webb Space Telescope this week revealed an unprecedented view of the cosmos, and at the same time the news brought renewed attention to the controversy over the naming of the telescope after James Webb, who led NASA ahead of the Apollo moon landings in the ’60s. He also played a key role in purging LGBTQ+ people from NASA, in what was known as the “lavender scare,” and before that at the State Department while he was second in command there under President Truman.

For more, we’re joined by Lucianne Walkowicz, one of four astronomers who led a petition to rename the telescope. They’re also the co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, which made a new documentary about the push to rename telescope, which we’re going to be featuring today. But in these first minutes before we play part of this documentary, Lucianne Walkowicz, your response to the new images of space NASA released and why you made the film to push for renaming the JWST telescope?

LUCIANNE WALKOWICZ: Well, you know, I think the images are incredibly striking, they’re absolutely beautiful, and they’ll teach us so much about the universe. But I really wish that I could feel unreservedly excited about them. Unfortunately, the way that NASA has dug in its heels about naming the telescope after James Webb has really cast a pall over that for me personally and, I know, for a lot of other queer astronomers, as well.

You know, I thought that this was one of the times to release this documentary, in part because I think we in the astronomy community have gone through a number of different methods to try and help NASA see sense on this issue. You know, I personally was a member of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee for NASA for many years, until I resigned over this issue last fall. You know, as part of that committee, we requested that there be an investigation and a report, which has never been released. So, you know, I thought as part of JustSpace and our producer and editor Katrina Jackson, who pitched this idea to us — you know, we really thought that laying out the case with the available information about the historical record and also showing its continuation into how queer astronomers are treated now in astronomy was an important thing to do in conjunction with this release of these new images.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lucianne Walkowicz, you’re involved with this amazing documentary that we’re about to preview, or at least a good chunk of it. Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer, co-founder of JustSpace Alliance, who studies the ethics of space exploration, one of four astronomers who created a community petition that called on NASA to not name the telescope the James Webb Space Telescope because they feel that he perpetuated homophobia at the State Department and NASA. Stay tuned, in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re now going to turn to the documentary JustSpace Alliance released this week called Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope. We’re featuring most of it for you today.

ANNOUNCER: And liftoff! Décollage, liftoff, from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself…

KATRINA JACKSON: Launched in December 2021, NASA’s newest space observatory is set to open a new chapter in astronomy. Thousands of people across 14 countries worked together to get this massive, complex spacecraft assembled and placed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where its tennis court-size sunshield cools the telescope enough for its 18 gold-plated mirror segments to reflect the faint glow of heat emanating from objects throughout the universe. These infrared wavelengths will reveal chemical signatures in the atmospheres of exoplanets, stars forming behind clouds of gas and dust, and the earliest galaxies from shortly after the Big Bang. It’s an awe-inspiring mission. But does its name invoke the same spirit of scientific exploration and shared humanity as the telescope itself?

PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: We are not waging a Cold War.

PROTESTERS: Say it loud! Say it proud! Say it loud! Say it proud!

SEN. JOSEPH McCARTHY: I don’t think you have any conception of the danger of the Communist Party.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

KATRINA JACKSON: After the Hubble Space Telescope, named for astronomer Edwin Hubble, NASA continued to name most of its space telescopes after scientists. Typically, these missions would start with a technical name and then get renamed around the time it was launched.

ROLF DANNER: What I have heard as a rationale for that is, like, in case of a launch failure, families often didn’t want to be associated with a just failed space telescope. So, often they rename the telescope after the successful commissioning of the telescope.

KATRINA JACKSON: Five months after the Gamma Ray Observatory launched in 1991, it was renamed after physicist Arthur Holly Compton. NASA renamed the X-ray Timing Explorer after astronomer Bruno Rossi three months after it launched in 1995. And in 1998, NASA announced a public contest to rename the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility. The winning submission from a high school student was the Chandra X-ray Observatory, in honor of Indian American Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The Shuttle Infrared Telescope Facility was first renamed the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, and then, after another public contest, was renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope four months after it launched in 2003. In 2008, there was a contest to rename the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, which resulted in the observatory being renamed after physicist Enrico Fermi two months after launch.

JWST took a different path. It was before construction even began that NASA announced the Next Generation Space Telescope would be renamed in honor of James E. Webb. Rather than going through any formal naming process, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe decided on the name himself in 2002.

SEAN O’KEEFE: And in broad terms, our mandate is to pioneer the future, to push the envelope, to do what has never been done before.

KATRINA JACKSON: This took many in the astronomy community by surprise. Partners on the project apparently weren’t consulted. And scientists wondered, “Who?” One good person to ask who is science historian Audra Wolfe, an expert on the role of science during the Cold War.

AUDRA WOLFE: So, James Webb, who’s usually referred to as Jim Webb, is most famous for being the director of NASA during the Apollo years. He had previously been the under secretary of state under Truman. That’s the second-in-command job at the State Department. He had also been director of the Bureau of the Budget. So he wasn’t so much an engineer or any kind of space scientist, but a seasoned bureaucrat who knew a lot about the workings of government.

KENNETH PITZER: He is now bringing all of his remarkable skills of leadership and management to the service of our nation in this most urgent program in space. It is with particular pleasure that I present the Honorable James E. Webb.

KATRINA JACKSON: NASA says they’re honoring James Webb not just for his leadership during Apollo, but also for pushing to have a balanced program with a focus on science.

JAMES WEBB: The whole thrust of the agency —

AMY GOODMAN: This is James Webb telling President John Kennedy the whole thrust of the agency is the lunar program; the rest of it can wait about six or nine months. “The people that are going to furnish the brainwork have got some doubts about it.” President Kennedy responds, “Doubts about what, with this program?” Webb answers, “As to whether the actual landing on the moon is what you call the highest priority.” President Kennedy says, what do you think — “What do they think is the highest priority?” And Webb responds, “They think the highest priority is to understand the environment.”

KATRINA JACKSON: With Webb championing science at the agency, NASA launched more than 75 space science missions by the end of the 1960s. But if we are honoring Webb’s leadership, it’s worth taking a broader look at all the things that happened in government while Webb was in charge.

AUDRA WOLFE: So, at the State Department, Jim Webb really pioneered the idea that you could use science as a tool for foreign relations. And then, separately, he also requested the study and implemented the findings of something called Project Troy, which really set the groundwork for the United States psychological warfare programs throughout the Cold War, with a really broad definition of psychological warfare as basically anything short of live bullets or economic warfare.

NEWSREEL: As a weapon of war, psychological warfare is no novelty. It is as old as war itself. But the use of this force as an integral part of combat has now taken on new forms.

AUDRA WOLFE: And science was a part of that. The group had originally been formed to think about how to unjam Voice of America broadcasts, because the Soviet Union had been jamming the radio broadcast. But this group really took a much broader interpretation of that mission, thinking about everything from how the United States could exploit Stalin’s death to how you could use battles for prestige, say, scientific prestige, to win hearts and minds around the world.

KATRINA JACKSON: The space race and the Apollo program, of course, were also a big part of the Cold War.

AUDRA WOLFE: The thing to understand about how Jim Webb saw the Apollo project is that, on the one hand, yes, this was a scientific project. It was a technological spectacle. For Jim Webb, the point of the Apollo program was always to demonstrate the benefits of the so-called American way of life to the rest of the world. The Apollo program was part of the Cold War contest to win the allegiance particularly of leaders in newly independent countries, to convince them that the way the leaders did things in the United States and that the way that the government worked in the United States was preferable to that in the Soviet Union.

KATRINA JACKSON: The Cold War was closely interwoven into many of the activities Webb was involved in at the State Department and NASA. Another major aspect of that was the systematic purging of suspected gay employees, known today as the “lavender scare.”

UP ARTICLE: “Two Republican congressmen claim Russia keeps a list of homosexuals in U.S. government jobs who might be blackmailed…”

ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE: “Fifty-four state department employees resigned last year while under investigtion…”

UP ARTICLE: “Senator McCarthy testified today that a homosexual had been hired by the Central Intelligence Agency after the state department allowed him to resign.”

UNATTRIBUTED ARTICLE: “'Since 1947 the department has considered homosexuals and other sex deviants to be security risks,' a statement said.”

UNATTRIBUTED ARTICLE: “The procedure to determine whether the employee is a homosexual is a lengthy one because evidence is difficult to develop and prove.”

UNATTRIBUTED ARTICLE: “It is the consequences of the deed that lay the individual open to blackmail. He is ashamed; he is frightened…”

ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE: “Lawmakers pressed today for a speedy Senate inquiry into Federal employment of sexual perverts described as the likely tools of Communist conspirators.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS ARTICLE: “The State Department announced tonight it had fired four persons in the U.S. consulate at Hong Kong after they confessed to being homosexuals.”

UP ARTICLE: “Four state department employees in Korea have resigned after being accused of homosexual activities.” …

KATRINA JACKSON: The lavender scare was closely tied to the Red Scare, a frenzy drummed up by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others that communists were hiding in the U.S. government. In February 1950, McCarthy claimed that over 200 communists were working for the State Department.

SEN. JOSEPH McCARTHY: Even if there are only one communist in the State Department, that would still be one communist too many.

KATRINA JACKSON: During Webb’s February 13th staff meeting, they discussed vigorously defending the quality of the department’s security against McCarthy’s accusations. And in an effort to do so, later that day, Deputy Undersecretary John Peurifoy told the congressional committee that the State Department had already been actively working to remove security threats from their employment roster. None of them were communists, but of the 202 people they had fired over the previous two years, 91 were suspected to be homosexuals. As stated in historian David Johnson’s book on The Lavender Scare, rather than see the revelation as evidence of an effective security system, many interpreted it as proof that the State Department — perhaps the entire government — was infiltrated with sexual perverts. Senator Clyde Hoey was tasked with investigating the situation. Hoey told his chief counsel:

SEN. CLYDE HOEY: “I don’t want any public hearings at all on this matter. I want it as low key as possible. Do it thoroughly — investigate it from hell to breakfast — but we’re not going to have any hearings that McCarthy can make big headlines out of.”

KATRINA JACKSON: Senator Hoey asked Jim Webb how his committee could work together with the executive branch on the investigation. On June 22nd, during one of Webb’s regular meetings with President Truman, they discussed Senator Hoey’s request.

JAMES WEBB: “I informed the President that Senator Hoey had wished me to find out how his Committee and the Executive Branch could work together on the homosexual investigation, and he advised me to say to the Senator that he was sure we could find a proper basis for cooperation. He approved a suggestion that Mr. Murphy, Mr. Spingarn and I see Senator Hoey on Saturday to discuss the necessary problems involving this cooperation. James E. Webb.”

KATRINA JACKSON: To prepare for the meeting with Senator Hoey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Carlisle Humelsine sent James Webb a package of information on June 24th. This included suggestions on how the Senate committee should conduct its investigation and how the State Department should work with them, as well as a background paper on “the problem of homosexuals and sex perverts in the Department of State.” This was quite literally a state-sponsored manifesto of homophobia, describing homosexuals as “emotionally unstable” and “abhorrent and repugnant” to the mores of America society.

But it also gives a lot of background information. As the document mentions, the government had no rules against the employment of homosexuals, and it wasn’t until just recently that anyone really considered it a problem. In 1947, Humelsine’s predecessor, John Peurifoy, took it upon himself to start ordering really intrusive investigations into the State Department’s employees to seek out possible homosexuals. By 1950, there were two full-time security staff members devoted to these investigations, which involved “inquiries at all places of employment, all residences and habitats.” They tried to determine if any friends or associates were homosexual, and placed employees under surveillance to determine if they were visiting any “known homosexual places.” Suspected employees were interrogated by the investigator and the chief of the Division of Departmental Personnel or Foreign Service Personnel. If they came to the conclusion that the employee was homosexual, they were promptly fired.

And again, at the time, there was no actual rule against homosexuals being employed in the government. Humelsine’s stated argument for firing them, in addition to thinking they were repugnant, was that:

CARLISLE HUMELSIN: “Most homosexuals are weak, unstable and fickle people who fear detection and who are therefore susceptible to the wanton designs of others.”

KATRINA JACKSON: So, the State Department considered homosexuals a security risk. And according to Executive Order 9835 signed by President Truman in 1947, agencies were responsible for ensuring that disloyal employees were not retained. In the very next paragraph, though, Humelsine admits that:

CARLISLE HUMELSIN: “We have no evidence, however, that these designs of others have caused a breach of security of the Department.”

KATRINA JACKSON: In fact, throughout the lavender scare, no one ever had evidence of a U.S. government employee being blackmailed into giving a foreign power state secrets due to their sexual orientation. But that did not stop the State Department from devoting considerable resources to subjecting its employees to surveillance of the most personal aspects of their lives.

Equipped with this information, Jim Webb met with Senator Hoey on June 28th along with Stephen Spingarn and Charles Murphy, two of President Truman’s advisers. According to Spingarn’s account of the meeting, Webb gave the senator that paper Humelsine wrote, the manifesto of the State Department’s homophobic viewpoints and justifications for firing homosexual employees. They discussed whether any part of the Senate hearings should be public. Hoey and Spingarn said they thought maybe the medical testimony should be public, and the rest in executive session, but Jim Webb wasn’t sure, and they all agreed they would think about it some more. As far as we know, from easily accessible information, that was the extent of Webb’s direct involvement with the Senate hearings.

According to the suggested process written up by Carlisle Humelsine, Humelsine himself would serve as the department spokesperson on the Senate investigation, while Webb and Secretary Dean Acheson would be kept informed of all significant developments and should be available for behind-the-scenes activities when necessary.

With a generally homophobic society, most members of the public and Congress were all too ready to believe the sorts of positions touted in Humelsine’s memo to Jim Webb. The majority of other government agencies also agreed, but not all of them. For example, the acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service told the committee:

HOWARD COLVIN: “Since it is possible, according to our understanding of medical and psychiatric opinion on the subject, for a homosexual to lead a normal, well-adjusted life, we do not consider that such a person necessarily constitutes a bad security risk.”

KATRINA JACKSON: After the Senate subcommittee’s investigation, their report stated that homosexuals should be fired for two reasons: “first, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute security risks.”

The State Department’s actions and the Senate subcommittee’s report caused the practice of tracking down and firing suspected homosexual employees to spread widely across the federal government and initiated decades of homophobic policies. President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which explicitly added “sexual perversion” as a reason for an individual being unsuitable for government employment.

By the time Jim Webb became NASA administrator in 1961, some of the media and congressional attention to the lavender scare had died down, but many agencies were still regularly targeting queer employees.

On October 22nd, 1963, NASA budget analyst Clifford Norton was driving his car near Lafayette Square. Two police officers from the morals squad saw Norton pick up a man, drive around the block and drop him off in the same spot, at which point the man drove off in a separate car. The officers followed both men to Norton’s apartment building, where they arrested the two of them in the parking lot and took them to the Morals Office to issue a traffic violation for speeding. The police interrogated both men for two hours about their activities and sexual histories. Meanwhile, the head of the morals squad called over the NASA security chief, who arrived at 3 a.m. and watched the last part of the police interrogation as Norton continued to deny the homosexual accusations. Then the security chief brought Clifford Norton over to NASA headquarters, where he and a colleague interrogated Norton until 6 a.m. Through these hours of late-night interrogation, Norton conceded that he sometimes experienced homosexual desires when drinking, but continued to deny he was a homosexual.

After the interrogations, Clifford Norton’s supervisor said he believed Norton was a competent employee doing very good work, and he asked personnel officers whether there was any way to avoid firing Norton, because he didn’t think this was a real security problem to worry about. The personnel officers told the supervisor that it was “custom within the agency” to fire anyone involved in homosexual conduct. So Norton was fired due to possessing “traits of character and personality” that render him “unsuitable for further Government employment.”

“Custom within the agency” implies that NASA fired others, as well. There isn’t any easily accessible information on how many suspected homosexual people NASA interrogated and fired during Jim Webb’s administration. The only reason we know about Clifford Norton is because he fought back. Norton called up Frank Kameny, who at that point was known for advocating for government employees who were dismissed over their sexuality. In fact, Frank Kameny was an astronomer who the American Astronomical Society has celebrated for his leadership in the gay rights movement.

JASON WRIGHT: He got started because he was trained at Harvard by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to be an astronomer. He went and he worked for the U.S. Army with his astronomy degree, and he was fired. And he was so outraged by that, that he turned it into a lifelong pursuit of activism of getting these laws changed.

FRANK KAMENY: This was at a time when people in my profession were in higher demand than they had been in all of human history. And I could not get a job specifically because of homosexuality. And I am not alone. I know many people who have done the same. I’ve seen careers ruined, lives destroyed, for no other reason — these were people with a great deal to offer to society — simply because society is prejudiced against them and would not allow them equality of opportunity.

ROLF DANNER: He coined the term “Gay is good,” and therefore said, like, if it’s good and if it’s an inherently good thing for us to be out, then it cannot be security risk. Because that was always the argument.

KATRINA JACKSON: Frank Kameny helped gather facts on the case and referred Clifford Norton to an attorney with the ACLU. After a prolonged legal battle, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1969 that federal employees could not be fired solely on the grounds of being homosexual. Homosexuality would justify dismissal only if it demonstrably affected the employee’s performance on the job. NASA’s Clifford Norton case and efforts from activists like astronomer Frank Kameny slowly turned the tide on institutional homophobia. But government discrimination against queer people continued for years.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Should someone be able to serve their country if they say they are homosexuals?

KATRINA JACKSON: The State Department in 2017 made a partial public apology for the lavender scare, but NASA and other agencies have never apologized for their participation. And as far as we know, no effort was ever made to compensate the victims or their family members.

In 2002, when administrator Sean O’Keefe renamed the Next Generation Space Telescope after James Webb, a lot of this information was not widely known. And though astronomers were confused by the unilateral decision to name the telescope after a former administrator, many were just happy the project had high-level support and funding. But in the mid-2010s, a few started to raise questions about what Webb’s role was during the lavender scare.

CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: So, I think it must have been around 2015 or so when I was still on the executive committee for CSGMA. That’s the Committee on the Status of Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. I was the founding member of the committee. And a blog entry came our way that raised questions about James Webb’s participation in the lavender scare, and there was some discussion about, you know, how we as a committee should respond to that. And then, essentially, the attitude, particularly from the more senior members, was the ship has sailed on that, and there wasn’t really anything that we can do about it. And at that point, I kind of dropped it as a thing that I could change, but decided it was something that I could at least talk openly about.

KATRINA JACKSON: In early 2021, four astronomers launched a petition to change the name of the telescope.

LUCIANNE WALKOWICZ: And Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Brian Nord and myself decided that prior to the telescope’s launch, we would create a petition that would essentially allow the astronomical community to coalesce around having this change of name.

SARAH TUTTLE: Hence the start of the petition and an attempt to kind of bring this to more astronomers and just say, “Hey, is this a thing we want to touch base about before this telescope gets launched and we start collecting data with it? You know, let’s sort of check in and see what’s going on here.”

BRIAN NORD: It was really heartening to see that over 1,800 people signed the petition. These are folks from as early career as in high school to major senior PIs, people inside and outside academia, including 10% of the signatories are people who have applied for JWST time. So, people who are getting ready to use the instrument, people who are excited for the science are included in those people who signed the petition.

KATRINA JACKSON: Meanwhile, internally, NASA started an informal investigation into James Webb’s role in the lavender scare, led by the JWST program scientist and the NASA historian.

ON-SCREEN TEXT: The following emails are from the FOIA release requested by Alexandra Witze, Nature.

KATRINA JACKSON: They were having trouble accessing records because the National Archives and the Truman Library were closed to researchers due to COVID. But after a few months, they got a contract set up for an independent historian to do research once the archives opened up. In the meantime, the independent historian started reading through some more readily accessible materials and came across the Clifford Norton case. The historian noted that “a custom within the agency” sounds pretty bad, and ”NASA under the direction of Webb was able to set its own rules for whom should be removed and for what reasons.”

Members of both the Astrophysics Advisory Committee and the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities asked NASA for updates on the investigation and information on NASA’s process for reconsidering the name. For the most part, NASA leadership gave those committees the same information that they were giving to reporters and the public. NASA was “aware of the concerns,” and they were “working with historians to examine [Webb’s] role in government.”

Over the summer, one of the interns in the history department also started looking into information on James Webb and, in early September, wrote a lengthy email full of information and sources. They wrote, “That Webb played a leadership position in the Lavender Scare is undeniable. The only thing left up to historical debate in this matter is whether or not his heart was in it. Was Webb emotionally invested in the persecution of LGBTQ people? … Either way, one thing is clear: he still did those things. And those things served a key role in a bigger thing, a thing that as NARA archivist Judith Adkins has pointed out, led many to suicide.”

The NASA historian said that there was a lot of good information in the intern’s writeup that he would include in his final report. Meanwhile, the independent historian still had not been able to access the archives, which were set to open in October.

But on September 27th, a one-sentence statement from NASA administrator Bill Nelson was sent to six reporters: “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.” There was no report released and no details on the investigation. And a lot of people were upset about NASA’s lack of transparency.

Many astronomers feel that changing the name of the telescope would be a way for NASA to start to reckon with its past and help reinforce the values NASA wants to carry into the future.

TESSA FISHER: I think it would help send the message that NASA in its current era does not tolerate the same sort of intolerance that was present in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. We are going to do our best to foster an inclusive, accepting and welcoming environment, that we want people who have been historically discriminated against and persecuted, because they make our agency stronger.

SARAH TUTTLE: And for astronomers who are using the telescope, applying for time, writing up their work, knowing that they’re kind of reinvigorating the legacy of somebody who very clearly did not support them, I think it’s a particularly heavy burden to ask queer astronomers to have to carry that burden. It kind of sends a pretty clear message about who is considered important or relevant.

JASON WRIGHT: You know, this isn’t James Webb on trial. This is: What should we name the telescope? And I don’t think anyone starting from a clean sheet looking at lists of names and coming up with the best name would have James Webb anywhere near the top of that list.

LUCIANNE WALKOWICZ: You know, I realize that people’s legacies are often complicated, but, you know, having a telescope named after you is not something that everybody just gets.

YAO-YUAN MAO: To be honest, I’m not quite sure why in this particular case NASA is so insistent on James Webb. It feels a little bit strange. There are just so many choices for a name — right? — even if James Webb was a great guy. If this name is not — it doesn’t get a buy-in from the community, I don’t see a strong reason that we need to stick to this specific name.

KATRINA JACKSON: One suggestion for a different name for the observatory could be the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope.

CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: So, I think that when we’re talking about sending something that represents humanity into space, that we should be thinking about sending the best of humanity into space and something that represents our very best. And Harriet Tubman is an exemplar of who we can be as a species and as individuals in terms of a commitment to what is right and doing what is right, a commitment to justice and a commitment to being actively engaged in struggle and to liberation.

LUCIANNE WALKOWICZ: The criticisms that I have sometimes heard are, you know, like, “Oh, well, Harriet Tubman wasn’t an astronomer.” Well, neither was James Webb. And also, you know, I think the question of who is an astronomer — right? — like, let’s think about why wasn’t Harriet Tubman an astronomer, even though she observed the night sky and used the stars for celestial navigation in the service of something that could not have been greater, right? People’s freedom. You know, to me, like, that makes her an astronomer.

JOALDA MORANCY: With the name, I just see a lot more hope and happiness. There’s a lot more positive characteristics that come with a name such as Harriet Tubman Space Telescope than comes with James Webb, I’d say. And it gives a lot of people who have traditionally been excluded in the community a lot of — a sense of belonging, I’d say.

AMY GOODMAN: An extended excerpt from the new JustSpace Alliance documentary called Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope. We’ll link to the full film on our website. It’s produced, edited and narrated by Katrina Jackson, a space science communicator and video producer. The film features the historian Audra Wolfe, NASA’s Rolf Danner and astronomers Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Lucianne Walkowicz, who we spoke with earlier about the petition they helped launch for NASA to change the James Webb Space Telescope’s name, which has gathered 1,800 signatures and counting.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman.

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