NASA Advisor Quits Over Space Telescope Named for Homophobic Administrator

NASA Advisor Quits Over Space Telescope Named for Homophobic Administrator
James Webb Space Telescope during testing in 2017. (Image: NASA/Desiree Stover)

Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz has resigned from a NASA advisory committee on account of the space agency’s perceived mishandling of a request to rename the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Webb was a NASA administrator during the 1960s who aided in the persecution of LGBTQ employees.

It’s fair to say that Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, is seriously upset right now — and for good reason. On September 28, the same day Walkowicz was struck by a car, they learned that NASA had decided, for reasons not made clear, that there was insufficient reason to rename the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In response, Walkowicz penned a caustic open letter to NASA announcing their resignation from the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), a resignation that took effect October 12.

For NASA, this represents a serious loss. As a scientist, Walkowicz has contributed to our understanding of stellar activity and how it impacts the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets and the potential for human activity on Mars. Walkowicz has even had an asteroid named after them.

That Walkowicz wants to move on from NASA is wholly understandable. James Webb (1906-1992) enforced anti-gay policies at the U.S. State Department and at NASA, where he served as administrator from 1961 to 1968. Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe came up with the idea of naming the telescope after Webb nearly 20 years ago. Earlier this year, a petition asked that NASA rename the next-gen telescope given Webb’s involvement in the Lavender Scare — a time when queer government employees were dismissed or forced to resign.

NASA responded by launching an investigation into the matter. APAC had been asking NASA for updates, but the committee was told to wait for the results of the investigation, which the space agency described as being “thorough.” Abruptly and with minimal detail, NASA announced on September 28 that no further actions would be taken, saying the investigators “found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name.”

NASA was very subdued about the matter, speaking only to reporters at NPR (as best I can tell) and refraining from issuing a formal statement. Writing in their open letter, Walkowicz described NASA’s decision to “quietly email just a few selected journalists” as being “flippant” and “pathetic.” Walkowicz writes that the tepid response speaks to larger issues at the space agency:

It is evident from this choice that any promises of transparency and thoroughness were, in fact, lies. It also seems clear that NASA would prefer a committee of Yes Men, a committee that co-signs things that NASA had already planned to do, or perhaps chides them about moderate course corrections that don’t actually challenge NASA at all. It is also clear that while Sean O’Keefe can just suggest James Webb as a telescope namesake because he thinks it’s a nice idea, queer people are required to justify their opinions via an investigation.

Walkowicz said they weren’t optimistic about the name change, especially given that current NASA administrator Bill Nelson was opposed to same-sex marriage until 2013.

NASA’s response “sends a clear message” about the space agency’s position on the “rights of queer astronomers,” wrote Walkowicz, and “it also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time.” They’re vexed that “NASA has so little insight into its own participation in systematic oppression,” citing the racial injustices portrayed in the film Hidden Figures.

“Of course, I am not the first queer person to be actively discouraged from NASA service,” wrote Walkowicz, “But I’m not the first and won’t be the last driven out of a NASA space, where evidently straight people’s opinions are valued and taken more seriously than queer people’s experiences.”

Looking ahead, Walkowicz said they will refrain from referring to the space telescope by its official name, and they’re encouraging others to do the same. Meanwhile, the struggle to rename the telescope after Harriet Tubman continues.

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