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NASA advisor quits after the agency keeps a $10 billion telescope named after James Webb, who was a senior State Department official during the persecution of gay and lesbian government employees

Oct 15, 2021, 19:57 IST
Business Insider
A NASA advisor has quit after the agency decided to keep the name of James Webb space telescope. NASA/Chris Gunn
  • A NASA advisor quit after the agency decided to keep a space telescope named after James Webb.
  • Webb was undersecretary of state in the 1950s when gay and lesbian federal employees were dismissed.

A NASA advisor quit following the agency's decision to keep naming a $10 billion space telescope after a former administrator who was the US undersecretary of state during the dismissal of gay and lesbian federal employees in the 1940s and 1950s.

Lucianne Walkowicz, who identifies as nonbinary, wrote an open letter to NASA's Astrophysics Advisory Committee on Tuesday, saying that they were resigning as an advisor over the way the agency had handled a request to rename the James Webb Space Telescope.

More than 1,200 people, including Walkowicz, have signed an open petition calling for the James Webb Space Telescope to be renamed. The petition cited the persecution of gay and lesbian government workers while Webb was the US undersecretary of state from 1949 to 1952. This was during the period referred to as the "Lavender Scare," when thousands of federal employees were dismissed or forced to resign because of their sexuality.

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The open petition also mentioned the former NASA employee Clifford L. Norton, who was fired in the 1960s after NASA said he made a "homosexual advance" amounting to "immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct," said a record of the case on Justia, a website that keeps online databases of legal cases. The incident that led to Norton's dismissal happened while Webb was NASA administrator.

NASA's decision to keep the space telescope named after Webb "sends a clear message of NASA's position on the rights of queer astronomers," Walkowicz said in the open letter. "It also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time," they said.

NASA didn't immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. The agency told NPR on September 30, before Walkowicz resigned, that it had investigated the matter and had found no evidence that would warrant changing the telescope's name.

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Walkowicz did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Webb ran NASA from 1961 to 1968, a period that included the Apollo moon program. He retired shortly before the first moon landing in 1969 and died in 1992. NASA said on its Goddard Space Flight Center webpage that many people believed that Webb "did more for science than perhaps any other government official and that it is only fitting that the Next Generation Space Telescope would be named after him."

On the same day that NASA told media outlets such as NPR about its decision to not rename the telescope, Walkowicz was hit by a car, they said. In the letter, they said they were on leave to recover from their injuries.

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The space telescope, projected to cost almost $10 billion, is expected to scan the universe for life-hosting planets and attempt to look back in time to photograph the big bang, Insider's Morgan McFall-Johnsen previously reported. The telescope completed testing in August and arrived at its launch location in French Guiana on Tuesday. It's scheduled to launch on December 18.

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