Who Was James Webb, The NASA Telescope's Controversial Namesake?

Space Administrator James E. Webb appears before the Senate Space Committee in its investigation of the spacecraft fire which killed three astronauts at Cape Kennedy. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Since it was launched into space on Christmas 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope has been sending back incredible images of deep space. The scientific community and most of the general public have celebrated the telescope's achievements, but some have advocated for the telescope's name to be changed.

James Webb presents the Group Achievement Award to Kennedy Space Center Director Dr. Kurt Debus in 1964. (N.A.S.A./Wikimedia Commons)

James Webb

James Webb was born in 1906, served in the Marines, studied law and education in college, and eventually held a series of senior positions within the State Department in the late '40s and '50s. During this time, he was outspoken about prioritizing scientific endeavors and technological advancements during the Cold War, and by 1961, he'd been appointed by President Kennedy as the second head administrator of N.A.S.A. in the agency's history. After he left N.A.S.A. in 1968, Webb served on several advisory boards, particularly for educational facilities like museums and universities, and even worked with the Smithsonian Institution. He died from heart disease on March 27, 1992 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

James Webb Space Telescope. (Arianespace, E.S.A., N.A.S.A., Canadian Space Agency, C.N.E.S./Wikimedia Commons)

The Lavender Scare

Webb accomplished a lot during his time at N.A.S.A. He successfully lobbied Congress to increase funding to the space program and oversaw the agency through its historic Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. For this reason, N.A.S.A. saw him as an ideal namesake for the new space telescope, but he also took part in several meetings to discuss the identification and purging of gay government employees during the "Lavender Scare" of the '50s and '60s. There's no evidence that Webb himself initiated any such actions, but his role in this ugly chapter of government history left a bad taste in many scientists' mouths. Activists have petitioned to rename the telescope, but in 2021, N.A.S.A. announced their intention to stand by their decision.