Who Was James Webb and Why Is a Space Telescope Named After Him?

NASA just released a batch of space photos from the new James Webb Telescope, but who is James Webb?

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NASA left the world starry eyed on Monday, after releasing the first space photo taken from the James Webb Telescope.

While most are still reeling from the space images, some might be asking, who is James Webb?

James E. Webb was an administrator of NASA in the 1960s, who most notably led NASA in the Apollo program, when they had the goal of landing people on the moon. Though he was not a scientist or engineer, he was an influence in space science.

Webb also served as the Director of the Bureau of the Budget and as Undersecretary of State of the Truman administration and served on the board of directors of the McDonnell Aircraft Company.

In 2002, previous NASA administrator Sean O' Keefe announced that he would be naming the agency's next telescope after Webb. The announcement was shocking to some because telescopes are normally named after scientists.

"It is fitting that Hubble's successor be named in honor of James Webb," O'Keefe said when he announced the new name. "Thanks to his efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscape of outer space. He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we're rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope , the Chandra X-ray Observatory , and the James Webb Telescope."

Truman Receives Rocket Models, 1961. On November 3, 1961 former President Harry S. Truman visited the newly opened NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. Accompanied by former NASA Administrator James E. Webb, he was presented with a collection of rocket models for his Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Artist NASA. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The decision was also met with disappointment among the space community because of allegations that Webb participated in the abuse and discrimination of LGBTQ+ people during his time at the space agency. The most notable event being the Lavender Scare, which was a time in the mid 1900s when thousands of LGBTQ+ employees were fired or forced to resign because of their sexuality.

The controversy surrounding Webb led to thousands of astronomers and researchers signing a petition to rename the James Webb Telescope, stating that "those who would excuse Webb's failure of leadership, cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo."

In September of last year, NASA launched an investigation that led to the current administrator, Bill Nelson, announcing that he saw no need for a name change.

However, according to documents obtained by Nature magazine, NASA was fully aware of the1969 appeals ruling that allowed NASA to fire people over suspicions of their sexuality.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the researchers leading the petition tweeted, "NASA leadership has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that what is now public info about JW's legacy means that he does not merit having a Great Observatory named after him."

The petition is not the only evidence of pushback against Webb. In May of 2021, five astronomers, including Prescod-Weinstein published an op-ed in Scientific American, titled, "The James Webb Space Telescope Needs to be Renamed."

With all of the pushback, there have been suggestions for who should replace Webb including abolitionist and social activist, Harriet Tubman.

"We, the future users of NASA’s next-generation space telescope and those who will inherit its legacy, demand that this telescope be given a name worthy of its remarkable discoveries, a name that stands for a future in which we are all free," researchers stated in the petition.

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