Nasa adviser quits and thousands protest at naming of telescope

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Nasa’s James Webb telescope (Nasa/Chris Gunn)

A Nasa advisor has quit in protest at a $10 billion telescope being named after a former administrator who oversaw a purge of gay and lesbians from the federal Government.

Lucianne Walkowicz, who is nonbinary, wrote an open letter to Nasa’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC) accusing them of lying about the decision-making process that led to the naming of a new flagship telescope after James Webb.

Ms Walkowicz said the decision showed the agency “does not deserve my time”.

Nasa named the telescope after Mr Webb, he served as Nasa administrator during the period that saw it work to put humans onto the Moon as part of the Apollo programme.

After the decision was announced, 1200 scientists, students and LGBTQ activists signed a petition calling for the telescope to be renamed.

Mr Webb was undersecretary of state from 1949 to 1952 during a period known as the Lavender Scare, when thousands of LGBT+ people were forced to leave their jobs at the federal government.

Nasa said that its historians would open an investigation into Mr Webb’s conduct. It has not said how it conducted the research or how it came to its conclusion – but told NPR that the investigation had concluded that a name change was not necessary.

“We’ve done as much as we can do at this point and have exhausted our research efforts,” senior science communications officer Karen Fox said.

“Those efforts have not uncovered evidence warranting a name change.”

In the open letter, Walkowicz said Nasa had acted in bad faith.

The decision “sends a clear message of Nasa’s position on the rights of queer astronomers”, Walkowicz said in the open letter.

“It also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time,” they said.

“It is evident from this choice that any promises of transparency and thoroughness were, in fact, lies.

“It also seems clear that NASA would prefer a committee of Yes Men, a committee that co-signs things that NASA had already planned to do, or perhaps chides them about moderate course corrections that don’t actually challenge NASA at all.”

Nasa say the Webb telescope “will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space”.

“It will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe,” the space agency said.

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