Based on JWST controversy, NASA is reevaluating how it names spacecraft

Based on JWST controversy, NASA is reevaluating how it names spacecraft

In 2015, the name of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was the subject of controversy when it was revealed that the namesake (the administrator of NASA between 1961 and 1968) was involved in the infamous “Lavender Scare”. This refers to the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s when the US State Department purged thousands of individuals from their posts due to allegations of homosexuality. In 2021, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called for an official, public report and commissioned NASA Chief Historian Brian C. Odom to investigate the matter.

In their final report, titled “NASA Historical Investigation into James E. Webb’s Relationship to the Lavender Scare” (aka the NASA James Webb Historical Report). In it, NASA claimed that their investigation found no direct evidence that Webb was a “leader or supporter” of the policy; therefore, they would not rename the JWST. In a surprise twist, it looks like NASA may be reviewing its naming policy and recommending changes. According to a statement released by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Administrator Nelson agreed that the policy should be reassessed.

“Many AAS members are concerned about NASA’s response to the JWST name and process, and we wanted to provide a brief update,” the AAS board said. “In response to our last letter, Administrator Nelson replied that NASA’s Acting Chief Historian as well as a contracted historian were reviewing the records and that NASA would share the findings publicly after completion. Nelson said also agreed that NASA’s mission naming policy needs to be reviewed and will be shared as well.We await those results.

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This isn’t surprising, considering how the JWST got its name in the first place. Beyond the controversy surrounding Webb’s role in Lavender Scare, the naming encountered backlash from the scientific community for breaking with tradition. Unlike previous observatories named after the scientists or principles they studied on (all major NASA observatories), Webb was appointed by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (2001 to 2004). O’Keefe did so without the usual consultations or competition process and chose a name that had no bearing on the observatory’s mission.

NASA’s decision not renaming the observatory naturally sparked anger and disappointment from the LGBTQI+ communities, scientists and others. Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, is also a member of the Sexual and Gender Minority Alliance (SGMA), the committee that advises the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on LGBTQ+ issues. During the investigation, Wright led efforts to learn more about NASA’s investigation and even spoke to Odom personally about it. As Wright stated on his website (Astroweb):

“At this point, NASA’s resistance changed from stubbornness to recalcitrance. Already, NASA employees refuse to use the name in major publications. The Royal Astronomical Society says it expects MNRAS authors not to use the name. The American Astronomical Society has twice asked the administrator to reopen the naming process (and received no response!). It’s a mistake that only grows when NASA refuses to correct it.

The ASS statement also included a reminder of the policy regarding their scientific journals, which states that “the acronym JWST need not be specified when first used in scientific articles”. At this point, it’s not entirely clear if the AAS is representative of actual plans or if it was just hot air from the admin. Either way, the administration’s refusal to rename the JWST, coupled with its apparent willingness to review its naming policies, sends an admittedly mixed message.

Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.  Credits: NASA
Illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA

For starters, NASA has a specific policy regarding the naming of spacecraft, probes, and missions that has been in place since the early 1960s and Project Mercury. This policy was established by the then-appointed Ad Hoc Committee for Naming Space Projects and Objects, founded in 1960. Based on the precedent established with the Explorer and Pioneer spacecraft, the committee emphasized that “flight names should be suggested for the mission and reflect the series of which they were a part.”

This is called the “Cortright” system, which the Project Designating Committee adopted in 1961. According to NASA Management Instruction 4-3-1 (NMI):

“Each project name will be a single, euphonious word that will not be duplicated or confused with other NASA or non-NASA project titles. Where possible and appropriate, names will be chosen to reflect NASA’s mission Project names will be serialized where appropriate, limiting the number of different names used at any time, however, serialization will only be used after a successful flight or completion.

In 2000, the administration instituted NASA Policy Directive 7620.1I (NPD), which made some minor additions to their naming procedure. In accordance with policy, NASA administrators and deputy administrators are responsible for naming missions:

“Initiate the name selection process by bringing together an ad hoc name selection team consisting of a member representing the office in which a project name is under consideration, e.g., science mission management, and a member representing all other NASA Headquarters offices involved in managing a significant item or having other major involvement with the project.This will include the Public Affairs Officer co-located in the NASA Headquarters Program Office who will initiate the name selection process The official in charge will lead the team or appoint a leader.

Photo from 1963 showing Dr. William H. Pickering, (center) Director of JPL, President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James Webb in the background. Credit: NASA

Once assembled, the ad hoc team named after the special project should solicit suggestions, especially from “NASA Responsible Centers and Contractors”. After completing deliberations, they are required to make specific recommendations to the Associate Administrator of the Office of Communications. The AA of the Communications Office is then responsible for reviewing the recommendations of this special committee, making a selection and submitting it to the administrator for final approval.

However, this process is often implemented informally. As former NASA chief historian Bill Barry described it:

“The official of the appropriate NASA Headquarters office is responsible for identifying missions that need a name and appointing a committee to recommend names. The operation of this committee depends on the official in charge and it does not There really isn’t a “preferred” method. [for naming craft]. Most proposals come with a name chosen by the principal investigator and NASA normally adopts these names.

None of these procedures were followed with respect to the selection of the JWST name. As it happens, the name was chosen in 2004 by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (2001-2004) without going through the usual channels. As such, a review of naming procedures would seem entirely redundant at this time, as they were not followed. And as noted, it’s unclear why a review of the naming process is needed if NASA insists on keeping the JWST name.

In short, it’s an admittedly mixed message and could be little more than lip service. Time will tell us!

Further reading: SAA

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