Why I’m Resigning from Advising NASA

The following is an open letter to NASA, which has been sent to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee as of 8am CDT Oct 12, 2021:

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to announce that I am resigning my role on the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, effective immediately. On September 28— the same day that NASA decided to quietly email just a few selected journalists its pathetic one line position on the renaming of JWST— I was struck by a car while walking. I am on leave while recovering from my injuries, but let me be clear: I am resigning from the APAC not because I need time to recover, but because NASA’s handling of the questions regarding James Webb as a choice for naming its next flagship mission has made a farce of this committee.

For the past year, the APAC has asked for updates regarding the investigation into the choice of Webb as the namesake for this mission, and has repeatedly been told to wait, and that results of a thorough investigation would be forthcoming. Instead, NASA's public relations team sent a few emails— with absolutely no details therein— that they had not found a reason to change the name of JWST.

It is evident from this choice that any promises of transparency and thoroughness were, in fact, lies. It also seems clear that NASA would prefer a committee of Yes Men, a committee that co-signs things that NASA had already planned to do, or perhaps chides them about moderate course corrections that don't actually challenge NASA at all. It is also clear that while Sean O'Keefe can just suggest James Webb as a telescope namesake because he thinks it's a nice idea, queer people are required to justify their opinions via an investigation.

This flippant, pathetic response to the very reasonable questions raised by the astronomical community regarding JWST’s name sends a clear message of NASA's position on the rights of queer astronomers. It also speaks clearly to me that NASA does not deserve my time. I serve and have served on numerous advisory committees such as the APAC. People do not ask me to serve on these committees because I am nice, or even solely on the basis of my expertise as an astronomer who has worked on several NASA missions, in addition to ground-based astronomical projects. People ask me to serve on advisory committees because I don't traffic in bullshit, and they will always get a real answer from me. I don't play along when I think grave mistakes or poor choices are being made. And I don't participate in things that I find farcical. After the past year and a half we've had with not only the pandemic, but also national grappling with issues of racism and human rights, it boggles the mind that NASA has so little insight into its own participation in systematic oppression. What, for example, does it mean for NASA Headquarters to rename its address to “Hidden Figures Way”, when NASA itself hid the figures of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson to begin with?

I admit that I felt pessimistic regarding chances for a name change as soon as the new administrator was announced, given that Bill Nelson— an uninspiring choice to begin with, which is saying a lot since the last guy was on the fence about climate change until 2018— took until 2013 to stop opposing gay marriage. Of course, I am not the first queer person to be actively discouraged from NASA service: Clifford Norton, who was subjected to extra judicial interrogation at NASA headquarters, and subsequently fired for being suspected of being gay, was the most famous, but he was also not the only one. Norton was just the one who availed himself of the courts to let you know. Similarly, I am just one astronomer who is telling you that this is why I am leaving the APAC. But I'm not the first and won’t be the last driven out of a NASA space, where evidently straight people's opinions are valued and taken more seriously than queer people's experiences.

I don’t plan on using JWST’s current name, and I encourage others reading this letter to do the same. We still think @NASATubman has a great ring to it.

Sincerely,

Lucianne Walkowicz

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