19 December 2022

Response to NASA's James Webb History Report

Kelsey Johnson

Kelsey Johnson University of Virginia

AAS President's Message

Last month we received the much-anticipated report from the NASA Chief Historian on former Administrator James Webb and his role in discrimination against and mass firing of people in the US government based on their sexual orientation during the “Lavender Scare” along with the NASA statement that the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. I have had the chance to talk with many members of our community about this outcome, and I know that for many of us this account of an especially painful time in our history was difficult to read. If you have not seen the statement or report and wish to read them, you can find them here.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) appreciates NASA acting on our request to conduct deep historical research on Webb’s role in the "Lavender Scare" and release the report publicly. The final report of nearly 90 pages reflects the review of over 50,000 pages of historical documents. The two primary results of the investigation are 1) NASA will not change the full name of JWST, and 2) In a letter to the AAS, Administrator Nelson stated that NASA is updating the processes of naming missions and buildings. 

I know that the JWST naming, its discussion and debate, and the timeline over which this report was commissioned and reported, have opened, reopened, and held open deep wounds for many, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+. What we choose to memorialize carries powerful symbolism about values and beliefs. As the current president of the AAS, I contend — unequivocally — that the AAS cannot fulfill its mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe as a diverse and inclusive astronomical community as long as any members of that community are marginalized by sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other aspect of their identity. This priority is already baked into the AAS Strategic Plan, which highlights inclusivity as one of our five core values. As a scientific organization, we value science, but we must also value the people our mission includes and affects as central to our purpose.

The JWST naming discussion serves to highlight how much more work is needed, and we are striving to make progress. In 2022, the AAS hired the first AAS DEI Committee Support Specialist to help support this work, and we are planning a DEI summit in 2023. We are implementing pronouns as part of the AAS membership and meeting registration processes. We will continue to advocate and urge NASA to create a transparent and community-based process for naming missions and buildings. As a reminder, the AAS journals fully support the use of the acronym JWST without spelling out the full name on first use. Finally, we are listening, and it is essential to hear from our members on what is needed to ensure equitable participation for all astronomers. Please send your comments by email to [email protected].

The “Lavender Scare” was only about 50 years ago, during the lifetime of some of our members, and serves to highlight how easy it is for us humans to fall into the established norms of a time and yield to existing power dynamics. Now, decades later, recent actions by some state governments continue to threaten discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. A question I am asking myself — and I would like each of us to consider — is “what am I aware of happening in my sphere today that I should act upon?” In 50 or 100 years, how will the coming generations look back on what we did and did not do today to make the world a better place? For me, the best path forward as an objection to the wrongs of the past is working to do our level best to build the future we would like to inhabit.

Kelsey Johnson
AAS President

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