Webb Space Telescope, despite concerns that its namesake, former NASA administrator James Webb, went along with government discrimination against gay and lesbian employees in the 1950s and 1960s.
The space agency tells NPR it has investigated the matter and decided to keep the telescope's name as is, ahead of the long-awaited launch in December.
"We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope," says NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
The powerful telescope, often viewed as the successor of Hubble, will be able to see light from the earliest galaxies in the universe and analyze the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, searching for gases in the air that might indicate the presence of life.
But some people, while thrilled about the scientific promise of this telescope, have taken issue with naming it after Webb, who ran the agency during the key years when it was working to put astronauts on the moon.
Earlier this year, over 1,200 people, mostly astronomers or astronomy enthusiasts — including scholars who want to use the new telescope for their own research — signed a petition urging NASA to rename the telescope, saying that Webb seems to have been complicit in the purge of homosexual people from government jobs during his time in public service, including when he served in a high-level position in the U.S. State Department.
They cite evidence such as the interrogation of former NASA employee Clifford Norton, who was fired in 1963 while Webb was directing the agency. "The historical record is already clear: under Webb's leadership, queer people were persecuted," the letter says.
"At best, Webb's record is complicated," says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire who co-authored an article calling for the telescope to be renamed. "And at worst, we're basically just sending this incredible instrument into the sky with the name of a homophobe on it, in my opinion."