Sidebar: Naming the James Webb Space Telescope

Source: James Webb Space Telescope from NASA.

Now that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is settling in at its new location 1 million miles away, we will be hearing that name for at least a decade every time NASA has new findings related to distant planets. It is worth noting that some people are not so pleased with the spacecraft’s designated name.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine highlighted some resistance to allowing former NASA administrator James Webb’s name to be part of the new space telescope. In the article, “NASA Won’t Rename the James Webb Space Telescope—and Astronomers Are Angry,” we are told that more than 1,200 individuals, “including scientists,” signed a petition asking for a new name. The petition stated that Mr. Webb was in key government positions during a period when gay and lesbian federal employees were fired due to their sexual orientation.  NASA later reported it did not have any evidence to support such a name change and considered the matter closed.

I will admit that I liked the name Hubble for the space telescope being replaced by the JWST. It seemed appropriate to name the telescope after Edwin Hubble, who proved there were galaxies beyond our Milky Way. That is an impressive accomplishment, whereas Mr. Webb was a successful Washington bureaucrat. Maybe another scientist would have been more appropriate.

That said, getting space programs funded is no easy task, so even if they want to name a space telescope after a U.S. Senator I will not issue an objection if that senator can get the job done. And let’s remember that we do have many perfect people for naming rights. Even Edwin Hubble, for all of his great accomplishments, was under a cloud of suspicion regarding a questionable redaction of part of a translation of George’s Lemaître’s 1927 paper that first reported what is today know as Hubble’s Law. While Hubble was eventually cleared of any questionable deeds, had it been raised at the time NASA was naming the space telescope it could have become an issue.

You may recall that NASA has used other questionable names for its missions in the past. For example, the god Apollo has many misadventures involving innocent women. Just ask Cassandra. And Mercury was far from innocent. The pesky god was known for rape and even Pandora’s Box. For some reason, I do not believe any of the gods would pass the test today.

Source: “Pandora” by Charles Edward Perugini, 1839-1918.