Young Scientists Claimed NASA Telescope Namesake James Webb Led A Crusade Against Gay People. They’re Wrong, But Won’t Give Up.

In 2002, NASA announced that it was naming its upcoming deep-space telescope after James Webb, the former leader of the agency from 1961 to 1968 who set in motion the 1969 moon landing.

At the time, no one complained, as the telescope hadn’t been built, but more than a decade later, in 2015, when the telescope was nearly finished, an article in Forbes (which is no longer available) kicked off an outrage machine that continues to this day. In the article, written by Matthew Francis, Webb is portrayed as a “bigot” who led an anti-gay purge when he was under secretary of state for then-President Harry Truman and testified about his dislike of gay people, according to The New York Times.

Francis credited Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, with informing him about Webb. The information, however, was wrong, based on misidentification, and that section was deleted without any editor’s note, the Times reported.

Still, the attacks against Webb continued. Scientific journals jumped on the allegations that Webb was anti-gay, with Nature, New Scientist, and Scientific American publishing essays and editorials attacking him without any commentary defending him, the Times noted. The Royal Astronomical Society in Britain also told astronomers never to use his name, but to refer to the telescope by the abbreviation JWST (James Webb Space Telescope).

When Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, president of the National Society of Black Physicists, looked into the claims about Webb, he discovered they were unfounded. He wrote of his findings in a Medium post in 2021, stating, “that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”

But the mob had already dug in and branded Webb a homophobe. The fact that Webb didn’t do the things he was accused of didn’t matter, so the argument against him shifted. Now, he was guilty of not doing enough to stop the gay purge, even though the gay rights movement didn’t exist at the time and modern scientists are applying current social justice morals to historic events, a view known as presentism.

Those crusading against Webb insisted he didn’t do enough to combat the Lavender Scare, when gay employees were purged from the federal government. However, Webb slow-walked the investigation and refused to turn over personnel files to investigators, according to an 89-page report from NASA regarding Webb.

Webb supported the civil rights movement, threatening to pull scientists and executives from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, over the actions of then-Governor George Wallace, who supported segregation, the Times reported.

Prescod-Weinstein in particular has continued to campaign against Webb, according to the Times, writing on Twitter that he “knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War.”

“This is about who we canonize and who are our real saints,” she told the Times. “We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy who was in the thick of a repressive government.”

She also dismissed Webb’s support of the civil rights movement.

“The civil rights versus gay people schtick is marginalizing and pathetic,” she told the outlet. “It’s straight people arguing about the straight canon. As a Black queer Jewish person, I’m not interested.”

She also suggested the Kennedy Center be renamed for Harriet Tubman and repeated baseless accusations of impropriety against Oluseyi, the physicist who defended Webb, the Times reported.

After Oluseyi’s Medium article angered those who wanted Webb’s named removed from the telescope, opponents began raising unsubstantiated allegations against him from when he was a professor at Florida Institute of Technology. He denied the allegations, and an investigation from Florida Tech that involved looking through records and thousands of emails found nothing to substantiate any of the claims. The Times itself looked into the allegations and found that some were “demonstrably false,” while others “could not be substantiated.”

That didn’t deter his critics, like Prescod-Weinstein, who went after George Mason University when it announced it was hiring Oluseyi in August 2021, the Times reported. She directed her attack to astronomy professor Peter Plavchan, who had welcomed Oluseyi on Twitter. Prescod-Weinstein wrote that Plavchan’s tweet was “a reminder that senior men in astronomy can treat junior women” while still being “welcomed by colleagues with open arms.”

Prescod-Weinstein also tweeted that “It continues to be the case that academic institutions play pass the harasser,” and suggested journalists look into why Oluseyi left his previous job, but didn’t respond to three Times emails requesting additional information.

NASA has said it would not remove Webb’s name from the telescope.

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