With the James Webb Space Telescope in the news over the long-awaited release of its incredible deep-space images, it's been easy to forget that it was named for an accused homophobe — but now the controversy is roaring back.
A quick refresher: NASA has for years now come under fire for naming the state-of-the-art space telescope after James Webb, the second-ever administrator of NASA who was believed to have led a "purge" of homosexuals in government.
This history has been well known amongst Webb-watchers for years now, and NASA has reportedly debated internally about whether or not the telescope should be renamed. But the agency has nonetheless held firm and kept the name up until the historic images this week.
That hasn't been a popular decision. At least one NASA adviser resigned last fall after the agency refused to rename the telescope amid growing calls to do so. And now the debate is flaring up again.
"James Webb space telescope imagery really hits different when you quit a job at NASA out of fear of transphobic and homophobic backlash," tweeted Victoria Scott, a former NASA Mission Control programmer (and current staff writer at Futurism's sister site The Drive).
In a short thread, Scott said that when she worked at NASA, she had coworkers who'd "had to hide their boyfriends and girlfriends from FBI investigations" as recently as the 1990s for fear of being "summarily fired if they were queer."
Jane Rigby, a NASA project scientist who is integral to Webb's operations, shared a similar sentiment.
"Said as a private citizen: a transformative telescope should have a name that stands for discovery and inclusion," Rigby tweeted.
"As one of the people who has been leading the push to change the name, today feels bittersweet," tweeted Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant physics professor at the University of New Hampshire. "I’m so excited for the new images and so angry at NASA HQ."
Prescod-Weinstein was one of the main instigators behind a petition to rename the telescope that has been circulated since last year to no avail.
While lots of people are rightfully decrying the telescope's namesake, other still are using its unfortunate name to make excellent jokes.
"Reminder to not call JWST by [its] official name," one user tweeted. "It's Jelescope Welescope Space Telescope in this house."
Dr. Thea Kozakis, an astrobiologist living in Denmark, even used it as an opportunity for a little surreal commentary, noting that on image launch day she coped by "pretending that because of time travel the space telescope is the original James Webb, and the homophobic human was named after" and that the telescope itself "is deeply, deeply disappointed to have someone who discriminated against the LGBT+ community named after it."
Jokes aside, it's a travesty that the telescope is still named after a well-known alleged homophobe — especially amid the loud public outcry against it.
But then again, NASA isn't always known for its commitment to diversity or inclusion. So really, we probably shouldn't be shocked.
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