James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and 60s, during the Cold War–era “Lavender Scare,” when government agencies often enforced policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal workers. For that reason, astronomers and others have long called for NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s suspected role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.
This afternoon, NASA released that long-awaited report by the agency’s chief historian Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made clear that the agency will not change the telescope’s name, writing: “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report illuminates that this period in federal policy—and in American history more broadly—was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”
Odom was tasked with finding what proof, if any, links Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Tracking down evidence of contentious 60-year-old events made for a difficult subject of study, Odom says, but he was able to draw on plenty of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.
These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming that he had been fired in 1963 after he was seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, his lawsuit states, and NASA security subsequently brought him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him throughout the night. He was later terminated from his job.
Such treatment of federal employees suspected to be gay or lesbian was commonplace at the time, following a 1953 executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, which listed “sexual perversion” among the kinds of behaviors considered suspicious. Still, the NASA report states, “No evidence has been located showing Webb knew of Norton’s firing at the time. Because it was accepted policy across the government, the firing was, highly likely—though, sadly—considered unexceptional.”
The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate critics who for years have been making a case to change JWST’s name. “Webb has at best a complicated legacy, including his participation in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists in a statement on Substack today. They question the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb had no knowledge of, or hand in, firings within his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we have to assume he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the administrator of NASA should know if his chief of security is extrajudicially interrogating people.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this release—on the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday—isn’t a coincidence, a way to make the report less widely read. “The fact that they did it even though it’s LGBT STEM Day tells you about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.
NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, like the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He led the agency while it advanced the space program toward the moon landing and promoted astronomy research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.
Even though agency officials made the call to keep Webb’s name, Odom says, “We should still use this history as an example of a past that was traumatic for a lot of people. This past, whatever Webb’s role in it was, is important to us going forward.”
That NASA is choosing not to rename the telescope is “not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer and cochair of the American Astronommical Society’s committee for sexual orientation and gender minorities in astronomy. Whether Webb knew of Norton’s treatment, or whether evidence of that exists, is not really relevant, Danner argues, since Webb stood for those policies as NASA administrator. “He’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”
NASA’s team leading the Artemis program of lunar missions really wants to get on with their inaugural spaceflight—which was slated for tomorrow morning. But with a strengthening Hurricane Ian barreling toward the Florida launchpad, it’s time to move the massive Space Launch System rocket to safety.
The space agency will roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to wait for another launch opportunity—but that might mean a delay of several weeks. The team has not yet committed to a date for a new attempt, although a backup window once planned for October 2 now looks all but doomed. “A determination on the return to the pad for launch will be made once the storm has passed and teams conduct post-storm inspections,” Tiffany Fairley, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center, wrote in an email to WIRED.
After a series of delays this summer, the Artemis team hoped to finally launch the uncrewed moon rocket from Kennedy in eastern Florida. But worries arose about wind damage to the spacecraft and risks to personnel at the space center. Heading into the weekend, NASA’s weather officers mapped the trajectory of Ian, which at that point was a tropical cyclone that appeared to be gaining strength and heading for landfall in Florida on launch day. The rocket can only tolerate sustained winds up to 74 knots when it’s on the launchpad, said Mike Folger, Exploration Ground Systems program manager at Kennedy, during a press conference on September 23. If those weather forecasts were right, the storm would soon become a hurricane, and winds exceeding that speed would hit Florida’s Space Coast.
NASA had to take into account the weather criteria not only for launching the rocket, but also for getting it moved to shelter, according to a post on NASA’s Artemis blog. Since the trip takes up to 12 hours, and the rocket can only take winds up to 40 knots while on the crawler that ferries it to and from the assembly building, the Artemis team had to make the call Monday morning to get the SLS under cover by Tuesday evening.
This would have been NASA’s third launch attempt. A first try on August 29 was scrubbed due to a liquid hydrogen leak discovered with the third RS-25 engine. (The rocket weathered a smaller storm then, with lightning striking towers nearby, but not the rocket itself.) A second shot on September 3 was also called off due to a hydrogen leak—this time it was larger. (Similar issues were also spotted in April and in June when the team ran “wet dress rehearsal” tests of the fueling and countdown procedures.)
The SLS uses liquid hydrogen supercooled down to -423 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a light, efficient, and powerful rocket propellant, but it comes with its own challenges. “Cryogenics is a very difficult kind of propellant to handle,” said Brad McCain, vice president of Jacobs Space Operations Group, prime contractor for NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems, at the press conference on September 23. He noted that liquid hydrogen leaks frequently popped up during the 135 space shuttle launches. With the SLS, he said, a “kinder, gentler loading approach,” using less pressure to push the propellant through the lines to the core-stage rocket, worked during a tanking test on September 21.
NASA has pushed back the launch of its Artemis 1 mission to the moon due to an issue with one of the engines of the giant SLS rocket.
With 40 minutes left on the countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Mission Control announced an unplanned hold as technicians investigated a problem that had arisen while loading the SLS rocket’s core stage with more than 700,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, supercooled to a frigid –423 and –297 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem was with the third RS-25 engine, one of the engines next to the right solid rocket booster. The flow of liquid hydrogen into the engine’s compartment wasn’t working as it should, and the propellant wasn’t at the proper temperature range.
Engineers had included the issue on their checklist during the most recent “wet dress rehearsal” in June, during which they practiced fueling and running the countdown sequence to within 29 seconds of launch. But they had been unable to test it at the time because of a liquid hydrogen leak.
This morning, the team also spotted a problem with a vent valve, and an incoming rainstorm and chances of lightning strikes also posed risks. After troubleshooting for more than an hour, launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson called today’s attempt a scrub.
At a press conference held just after 1 pm ET, NASA officials did not commit to a specific date for the next attempt. “Friday’s definitely still in play,” said Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin, referring to September 2, the next planned launch window. When pressed by reporters for specifics on how likely a Friday launch would be, he called it a “nonzero chance,” to much laughter among people in the room. The next possible launch date, if Friday is not an option, is September 5.
None of the officials—which included NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Jim Free, the agency’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate—were ready to say whether a longer delay and more serious repairs would be necessary. “We’re not going to have all the data and implications today, but we felt we owed it to you to share what we know,” said Free.
Speaking on the space agency’s livestream earlier this morning shortly after the launch was scrubbed, Nelson stressed the need for resolving all issues. “We don’t launch until it’s right,” Nelson said. “It’s just illustrative that this is a very complicated system, and all those things have to work. You don’t want to light the candle until it’s ready to go.” He cited the example of the 24th space shuttle launch in 1986, which was scrubbed four times before launching “a flawless mission.”
The first Artemis flight will be uncrewed. After launch, the Orion capsule, carrying three mannequins, will head off on a 42-day mission that will involve several orbits around the moon, as well as lap 40,000 miles beyond it, before heading back to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. Its reentry will serve as a test of a new heat shield material called Avcoat, and the mission will also collect performance metrics throughout, as well as radiation data from sensors worn by the mannequins.
Only the hardiest organisms can thrive in one of the coldest springs on earth. That’s why in the summers of 2017 and 2019, Lyle Whyte took a helicopter to Lost Hammer Spring in the unpopulated High Arctic region of Nunavut, Canada. Snow, ice, salt tufa, rocks, and permafrost surround the unassuming spring, which is nestled among nearly barren, treeless mountains on the island of Axel Heiberg, a few hundred miles from the North Pole. He had traveled to this out-of-this-world place to study the microbes that live in its salty, icy, low-oxygen water in hopes of learning about what life might have been like if it ever emerged in similar spots—on Mars.
In a new paper in The International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal, Whyte and his colleagues write that the microorganisms that live a few inches down in the spring’s sediment can indeed survive the harsh environment. Most Earth species depend either directly or indirectly on solar energy. But these microbes can survive on a chemical energy source: They eat and breathe inorganic compounds like methane and hydrogen sulfide, which makes the area smell like rotten eggs, even from a distance. (The research team’s pilot calls the site the “stinky springs.”) “You have these rock-eating bugs, essentially, that are eating simple inorganic molecules, and they’re doing this under very Mars-like conditions, in this frozen world,” says Whyte, an astrobiologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
The search for extraterrestrial life has often focused on the Red Planet. Scientists believe that more than 3 billion years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today, and had a more protective atmosphere. While the planet is almost completely inhospitable to life now, researchers envision past Martian microbes eking out a life—or even flourishing—at the frigid, mucky bottom of some pond. Scientists have been sending rovers to trundle along the surface to hunt for evidence of such long-extinct alien microorganisms, and a drone copter to scout the path ahead. But it’s expensive—and difficult—to send a sampling expedition to Mars. Canada is a heck of a lot closer, and it’s not a bad proxy.
The Lost Hammer Spring has a number of unique attributes that mimic parts of the Martian landscape, Whyte says. First, there’s the subzero temperature (about -5 Celsius), as well as the extreme saltiness of the water—25 percent salinity, about 10 times as salty as seawater. (The salt keeps the water liquid, preventing it from freezing over.) Mars has been found to have salt deposits here and there, some of which might have been in brines eons ago, which perhaps would have been the last habitable spots on the planet. The water at Lost Hammer is nearly devoid of oxygen, at less than 1 part per million, which is uncommon on Earth but not on other worlds. Any creature holding out there counts as an “extremophile,” because it survives in bleak conditions on the fringe of where life can exist at all.
On each of their trips to the remote Canadian region, Whyte and his colleagues scooped up samples of the briny mud, each just a few grams. Back at their lab, they used machines to isolate microbial cells and sequence their genomes and RNA to figure out what the microbes use for energy and how they tolerate the conditions in the spring. That could aid astronomers’ efforts to figure out where and how microbes might be sustained on Mars or other worlds.
This spring, when the teams submitted their results to IARPA, evaluator teams graded how well each one did. In June, the teams learned who was moving on to SMART’s second phase, which will run for 18 months: AFS, BlackSky, Kitware, Systems & Technology Research, and Intelligent Automation, which is now part of the defense company Blue Halo.
This time, the teams will have to make their algorithms applicable across different use cases. After all, Cooper points out, “It is too slow and expensive to design new AI solutions from scratch for every activity that we may want to search for.” Can an algorithm built to find construction now find crop growth? That’s a big switch because it swaps slow-moving, human-made changes for natural, cyclical, environmental ones, he says. And in the third phase, which will begin around early 2024, the remaining competitors will try to make their work into what Cooper calls “a robust capability”—something that could detect and monitor both natural and human-made changes.
None of these phrases are strict “elimination” rounds—and there won’t necessarily be a single winner. As with similar DARPA programs, IARPA’s goal is to transition promising technology over to intelligence agencies that can use it in the real world. “IARPA makes phase decisions based on performance against our metrics, diversity of approaches, available funds, and the analysis of our independent test and evaluation,” says Cooper. “At the end of phase 3, there could be no teams or more than one team remaining—the best solution could even combine parts from multiple teams. Alternatively, there could be no teams that make it to phase 3.”
IARPA’s investments also often leak beyond the programs themselves, sometimes steering scientific and technological paths, since science goes where the money goes. “Whatever problem IARPA chooses to do is going to get a lot of attention from the research community,” says Hoogs. The SMART teams are allowed to go on to use the algorithms for civil and civilian purposes, and the datasets IARPA creates for its programs (like those labeled troves of satellite imagery) often become publicly available for other researchers to use.
Satellite technologies are often referred to as “dual-use” because they have military and civilian applications. In Hoogs’ mind, lessons from the software Kitware develops for SMART will be applicable to environmental science. His company already does environmental science work for organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; his team has helped its Marine Fisheries Service detect seals and sea lions in satellite imagery, among other projects. He imagines applying Kitware’s SMART software to something that’s already a primary use of Landsat imagery: flagging deforestation. “How much of the rainforest in Brazil has been converted into man-made areas, cultivated areas?” Hoogs asks.
Auto-interpretation of landscape change has obvious implications for studying climate change, says Bosch Ruiz—seeing, for example, where ice is melting, coral is dying, vegetation is shifting, and land is desertifying. Spotting new construction can show where humans are impinging on areas of the natural landscape, forest is turning into farmland, or farmland is giving way to houses.
Those environmental applications, and their spinout into the scientific world, are among the reasons SMART sought the United States Geological Survey as a test and evaluation partner. But IARPA’s cohort is also interested in the findings for their own sake. “Some environmental issues are of great significance to the intelligence community, particularly with regard to climate change,” says Cooper. It’s one area where the second application of a dual-use technology is, pretty much, just the same as the first.