The Harriet Tubman Space Telescope and the Lavender Scare at NASA: What happens when a telescope zooms in on the politics of Earth?

As we gaze near and über far, either at the 174 Megapixel images of the moon, or through the new telescope named after NASA bureaucrat James Webb, take note of this new documentary Behind the Name. As reported by Wired, JustSpace Alliance released the documentary on YouTube in July. "The movie explores Webb's history, NASA's opaque naming process, and growing pressure from the astronomical community to rename the telescope to alternatives like the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope, the Just Wonderful Space Telescope, or simply its acronym: JWST. 'The goal is to get the name changed and for NASA to have an honest and open conversation about the naming process,' says Jackson, a video producer working part-time at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and other organizations."

The documentary The Lavender Scare further explores the Cold War context of Webb's tenure at NASA, telling "the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual."

Theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein released a video statement explaining why the telescope should be renamed for the astronomer Harriet Tubman. In Ms. Magazine Prescod-Weinstein emphasized, "I believe that Harriet Tubman, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and general expert on the social technology of liberation, understood and used this cosmos that includes Black people and freedom. This knowledge makes her one of the greatest astronomers in American history. For this reason, last year I argued with colleagues, including fellow Black astronomer and physicist Brian Nord, that the next generation NASA space observatory—named for a Kennedy-era leader who is implicated in the Lavender Scare—should be renamed the "Harriet Tubman Space Telescope."

Prescod-Weinstein is the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, and is assistant professor of Physics and Core Faculty Member in Women's and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire.