August 10, 2022

James Webb’s Role in Purge of LGBTQ+ NASA Workers Prompts Push to Name Telescope After Harriet Tubman

1 min read

The release of the first images from NASA’s new flagship James Webb Space Telescope brought renewed attention to the controversy over naming the telescope after James Webb, who led NASA ahead of the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s. He also played a key role in purging LGBTQ+ people from NASA in what was known as the “lavender scare,” and before that at the State Department under President Truman. We speak with Lucianne Walkowicz, one of four astronomers who led a petition to rename the telescope. Although the petitioners value the insights the telescope contributes, “the way that NASA has dug in its heels about naming the telescope after James Webb has really cast a pall over that,” says Walkowicz. They are also the co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, which made a new documentary about the push to rename the telescope. We feature an extended excerpt from “Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope,” which also examines the push to name the telescope after Harriet Tubman, who “observed the night sky and used the stars for celestial navigation in the service of … people’s freedom.”