By | March 12, 2023

WASHINGTON — A new NASA policy makes it unlikely that future missions will be named after individuals in response to the controversy surrounding the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope.

A NASA Policy Directive (NPD), dated December 2022, lists updated requirements for naming NASA facilities or projects. It replaces a policy for naming major NASA projects which dates back to 2000.

The new policy received little attention until Mark Clampin, NASA’s director of astrophysics, mentioned it during a March 29 meeting of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee. He brought it up in response to a request from the committee from its previous meeting for a briefing on the agency’s “mission naming and memorialization policy” in light of the JWST naming controversy.

“Collectively we now have an NPD telling us how to name programs, and who is in the chain of responsibility to make those decisions,” Clampin said at the meeting, without going into detail about the specifics of the policy.

The biggest difference in the new policy is language that specifically discourages naming missions after individuals. “Where possible, limit the practice of naming projects, assignments, instruments, etc. after individuals,” it says. “Instead, use the theme of unity, inspiration, or a person’s accomplishments as the primary criteria for a project or assignment name.”

“Except in extraordinary circumstances, names of individuals will be considered and, only in more rare cases, may individuals still living be considered,” the policy added. Under these circumstances, the use of a person’s name “should be based on their contribution to America, NASA, and humanity, and therefore be so extraordinary that any other form of recognition by the agency would be deemed inadequate.”

The change comes after controversy over naming the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency’s latest astrophysics flagship, after Webb, a NASA administrator in the 1960s. Many astronomers objected to the name in recent years, citing allegations that Webb, at NASA and previously at the State Department, fired LGBTQ+ employees.

NASA conducted a historical review and, in a final report released in November, concluded that there was no evidence to support these allegations against Webb. That conclusion displeased some scientists, including several who led efforts to have the telescope renamed. “Ultimately, Webb has a complicated legacy at best,” they said in a statement after the historic report was released. “His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument.”

Other individuals, regardless of their heritage, are unlikely to receive a monument in the form of a NASA mission. The agency had routinely named astrophysics missions after astronomers, including the original “Great Observatories” missions: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. NASA’s next flagship space telescope, originally called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in 2020 after NASA astronomer Nancy Grace Roman.

Such practices have been less common in NASA’s other science departments. A handful of NASA planetary science missions have been named after historical scientists or explorers, including the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Magellan mission to Venus. However, recent missions have had more generic names or acronyms. For example, NASA used student competitions to select the names of Mars rovers such as Curiosity and Perseverance.

Geoscience and heliophysics missions have also generally used generic names or acronyms. One exception was NASA’s 2017 announcement that it would rename the Solar Probe Plus mission Parker Solar Probe after space scientist Eugene Parker. It was the first time that NASA named a mission after a living scientist. (Parker died in March 2022.)

Another change to the naming policy is the requirement that an agency historian be involved “early in a consideration process with responsibility for providing a verifiable audit of each individual whose name is being considered.” The historical analysis, according to the policy, “will include a review of human capital to ensure that diversity, unity, inclusion and inspiration are considered.”

Although acronyms are common for NASA missions, the policy states that acronyms should be “avoided in name selection except where the abbreviation is descriptive and easy to pronounce.” A similar provision existed in the previous policy.


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