Webb and Truman
NASA Administrator James Webb (right) with former President Harry Truman outside NASA Headquarters in 1961. A NASA historical review found no evidence Webb was involved in discriminatory actions against LGBTQ employees at NASA or the State Department. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A new NASA policy makes it unlikely future missions will be named after individuals in response to the controversy surrounding the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope.

A NASA Policy Directive (NPD), dated December 2022, lists updated requirements for naming NASA facilities or projects. It replaces a policy for naming major NASA projects that dated back to 2000.

The new policy got little attention until Mark Clampin, NASA astrophysics director, mentioned it during a meeting of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee March 29. He brought it up in response to a request by the committee from its previous meeting for a briefing on the agency’s “mission naming and memorialization policy” in light of the JWST naming controversy.

“The bottom line that we do now have an NPD that tells us how to name programs, and who lies in the chain of responsibility for making those decisions,” Clampin said at the meeting, without going into details about the details of the policy.

The biggest difference in the new policy is language that explicitly discourages naming missions after individuals. “Where possible, limit the practice of naming projects, missions, instruments, etc., after individuals,” it states. “Instead use the theme of unity, inspiration, or the accomplishments of a person as the primary criterion for a project or mission name.”

“Except in extraordinary circumstances will names of individuals be considered and, only in more rare circumstances, may individuals who are still living receive consideration,” the policy adds. In those circumstances, the use of a person’s name “should be based on their contributions to America, NASA, and humanity, and therefore be so extraordinary that any other form of recognition by the Agency would be considered inadequate.”

The change comes after controversy about naming the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency’s latest flagship astrophysics mission, after Webb, a NASA administrator during the 1960s. Many astronomers opposed the name in recent years, citing allegations that Webb, at NASA and previously at the State Department, fired LGBTQ+ employees.

NASA conducted a historical review and, in a final report released in November, concluded there was no evidence to substantiate those claims against Webb. That conclusion left some scientists dissatisfied, including several who led the effort to get the telescope renamed. “Ultimately, Webb has at best a complicated legacy,” they said in a statement after the release of the historical report. “His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument.”

Other individuals, regardless of their legacies, are unlikely to gain a monument in the form of a NASA mission. The agency had routinely named astrophysics missions after astronomers, including the original “Great Observatories” missions: Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope. NASA’s next flagship space telescope, originally called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, was renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in 2020 after NASA astronomer Nancy Grace Roman.

Such practices have been less common in NASA’s other science divisions. A handful of NASA planetary science missions have been named after historic scientists or explorers, including the Cassini mission to Saturn, Galileo mission to Jupiter and Magellan mission to Venus. Most recent missions, though, have had more generic names or acronyms. NASA used student contests, for example, to select the names of Mars rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance.

Earth science and heliophysics missions have also generally used generic names or acronyms. An exception was NASA’s announcement in 2017 that it would rename the Solar Probe Plus mission the Parker Solar Probe after space scientist Eugene Parker. That marked the first time NASA named a mission after a living scientist. (Parker died in March 2022.)

Another change to the naming policy is the requirement that an agency historian be involved “early in any consideration process with responsibility of providing a verifiable review of any individual whose name is being considered.” That historical analysis, the policy states, “will include a human capital review to ensure diversity, unity, inclusion, and inspiration are considered.”

While acronyms are commonplace for NASA missions, the policy states that acronyms should be “avoided in selecting names except where the acronym is descriptive and easily pronounced.” A similar provision was in the earlier policy.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...