A Closer Examination on the Naming Practices in Astronomy is Needed

In 2002, NASA announced that it would be renaming its Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope, in honor of its second administrator, James E. Webb. However, this decision sparked controversy in 2015 when journalist Dan Savage highlighted Webb’s role in the ‘Lavender Scare’, a moral panic in the 1950s and 1960s concerning homosexual federal employees in the U.S. During Webb’s tenure as undersecretary of the Department of State, 91 gay people were purged from the department. Despite NASA’s internal investigation claiming to find no evidence warranting a change in the name of the observatory, some astronomers have disagreed with this conclusion, including the American Astronomical Society.

This controversy has brought to light a wider issue within the scientific community regarding the naming of observatories and cosmic objects. Traditionally, observatories have been named after scientists, predominantly white men. However, in an effort to promote inclusivity, NASA has renamed its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope to the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, after the former chief of astronomy at NASA. Additionally, the National Science Foundation has renamed the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope after Vera Rubin, a pioneering astronomer in the discovery of dark matter.

In addition to telescopes, the names of certain cosmic objects have also been criticized for their cultural insensitivity. For example, the nebula NGC 2392 was previously known as the Eskimo Nebula, a term considered offensive by many Indigenous people in Canada and Greenland. Similarly, the pair of interacting galaxies – NGC 4567 and 4568 – were formerly known as the Siamese Twins Galaxies. In response to this, NASA has taken steps to avoid using these nicknames in its official statements.

The issue of renaming is not confined to the field of astronomy. The Entomological Society of America has discontinued the use of the names “gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant” due to their pejorative connotations. In 2023, the American Ornithological Society announced that it would phase out bird eponyms, or names given to birds after specific people.

The author emphasizes that renaming is not an attack on anyone, but a way of making space for everyone. They argue that astronomy, a field that reminds us of the vastness of the universe, should be inclusive and respectful to all.

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