You don’t need a telescope to see there’s a heated debate in American astrophysics. It’s a debate about discrimination, specifically homophobia; the historical figures we choose to honour by name and with monuments; responsibility; and what classifies as the truth. That’s where we’re at in Dec 2021, as US space agency NASA is readying itself to launch its largest space telescope since Hubble. All this division and debate threatens to discourage young scientists from entering the field, not to mention possibly detracting from the exciting scientific data set to benefit humanity.
The telescope in question is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Scientists started work on the telescope even before its predecessor, Hubble, launched in 1990. But NASA says the JWST won’t succeed or replace Hubble, it will add to Hubble’s range. Unlike Hubble, it will detect light in the infrared range. That should let astronomers see through clouds of dust and gas in space and create clearer images of how the very first stars and galaxies formed, more than 13.5 billion years ago.
The telescope has been a very long time coming. It’s also one of the most expensive missions in the history of space research, costing the US roughly $10 billion (euro 8.9 bn) from conception through to the end of its initial five-year operation. The European Space Agency has provided two science instruments and an Ariane 5 rocket for the launch, currently (re)scheduled for December 25, 2021, at a reported total cost of euro 700 million. The Canadian Space Agency has provided sensors and instruments at a reported cost of 200 million Canadian dollars.
It’s a big moment in space — and thus understandable that some refer to the telescope as a “monument” to international space discovery. James Webb was NASA’s second-ever administrator — that is, its head or director, serving from 1961 to 1968. Before that, he had been an under-secretary at the US State Department. In 2002, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe decided to rename the telescope from the “Next Generation Space Telescope” in honour of Webb. Webb “played a key role in retaining an active science program at NASA in the agency’s early years,” wrote a spokesperson in an email to DW. That was the Cold War era, a time of social upheaval in the US. It was also the age of America’s moon missions, but just short of Apollo 11, the first one to touch down. Getting the US, or any country, to the moon was no mean feat. It was an intensely political era, and with the world still emerging from World War II, the huge sums of money it cost to do that were tricky to round up. Webb had both served the politics of the day and managed to keep science at the center of it all. Thus, the idea to honour him with the renaming.
But was anything specifically wrong with the original name? NASA wouldn’t say. “Changing mission names — for example, changing the Solar Probe Plus to Parker Solar Probe in 2017 — is not uncommon,” is all NASA’s Alise Fisher wrote in reply. But the name James Webb has divided astrophysicists in America. Some say Webb was homophobic, even possibly involved in efforts at the State Department and then NASA to sideline, fire and even “persecute” gay people. So by giving the telescope Webb’s name, the question is whether NASA could be celebrating a legacy of discrimination and sending a negative signal to the next generation of astrophysicists.
“Science is not removed from the questions that the rest of society grapples with — we have bias, racism, sexism, homophobia,” said Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and co-author of a petition to get the JWST renamed.
Walkowicz says the scientific community “continues to be unwelcoming to people who are LGBTQ or from marginalised identities, people of color, gender nonconforming or disabled. There are many ways in which science broadly and astrophysics more specifically is not welcoming to a lot of people.”
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle