WASHINGTON — NASA officials are standing by their decision to retain the name of the James Webb Space Telescope despite criticism from some astronomers, including one who resigned from an advisory committee in protest.
The agency said in a one-sentence statement in late September that a historical review turned up no evidence to back allegations that James Webb oversaw policies earlier in his career at the State Department to purge the department of LGBTQ employees, as well as one case involving a NASA employee while Webb led the agency in the 1960s.
“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement provided to media. Agency officials added they had no other information, including a report, to provide about that review.
Many astronomers who signed a petition calling for JWST to be renamed objected to both the decision and the lack of details about it. It prompted Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to resign from the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, or APAC.
“NASA’s handling of the questions regarding James Webb as a choice for naming its next flagship mission has made a farce of this committee,” Walkowicz wrote in an Oct. 12 open letter, noting APAC has asked the agency about the issue for the past year. The one-sentence statement was a “flippant, pathetic response.”
At a meeting of APAC the next day, NASA did provide more information about the investigation. Brian Odom, acting NASA chief historian, discussed the review he led into the allegations against Webb.
“What we found was that, with the available information that we had,” he concluded, “there was no evidence. That doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence. It means that we found no evidence in this investigation.”
That review included interviews with historians who had previously studied Webb and examinations their research. The agency also hired a contract historian to go into archives, but many of those archives remain closed because of the pandemic, he noted. “As of right now, with the historical information we have in hand, and with the analysis we’ve done on the available evidence, we determined that there is no direct evidence.”
Odom confirmed there was no plan to produce a report detailing those findings. “As of now, there is no formal report and there is no intent to put together a formal report,” he said. “The conversations I’ve had with the administrator and the administrator’s office over the course of this investigation was all just reporting that there was no evidence to report at this time.”
Odom added he was impressed with how Nelson considered the issue in those conversations. “He definitely always gave me the impression that he was looking at this objectively, that he did want to see the evidence,” he said.
The issue came up again at an Oct. 18 town hall meeting by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The three highest-ranked questions submitted in advance of the event were about the Webb investigation, including whether NASA will release more details about it.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, recapped the historical review of Webb. “They found, after weighing all of this, no evidence to point to Webb’s personal involvement in his leadership role or any action linked to Webb,” he said.
“I want to acknowledge that this is a disappointment to some or even many,” he added. “While history is always complicated, I’m actively committed — and here I speak for our entire team — to prove with our actions now that we want to be inclusive.”
At the APAC meeting, Odom said that the investigation would continue once historical archives reopen. “We understand that the past is never closed, and if new evidence comes to light, that evidence will be presented to the administrator and that will inform a new decision,” he said.