A space telescope that will look to the origin of the universe carries the name of a NC native

The James Webb Space Telescope launched on Christmas is designed to peer back to the origin of the universe by collecting infrared light from galaxies more than 13 billion light years away.

But the man for whom this $10 billion super-seeing instrument is named remains relatively out of view in his native North Carolina. James Webb was born in rural Granville County, grew up in Oxford and graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Education in 1928. He served in various U.S. government posts, but is best known as NASA’s second administrator. In leading the space agency from 1961 to 1968, he demonstrated a genius for management and motivation that culminated in what Neil Armstrong famously called “one giant leap for mankind.”

Tony Rice, a NASA ambassador who writes about astronomy for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, said of Webb, “We wouldn’t have gotten to the moon without his leadership.”

Yet there has been remarkably little fanfare about the honor of Webb’s name being given to an instrument expected to provide a new vision of the universe.

Michael Hobbs, communications director at the UNC School of Education, recently published a fine account of Webb’s career and there have been other reports, but the attention has been muted. Webb, who died in 1992 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, donated materials from his NASA career to the Durham Museum of Life and Science, where there is a small display in his honor. But Kelly Marks, an exhibits developer at the museum, said the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope “hasn’t been something we’ve heard a lot of people talking about here.”

Rice said a controversy about naming the telescope after Webb may be keeping the spotlight off his role. Some 1,200 astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts early this year petitioned NASA to remove Webb’s name from the telescope. They say that Webb, while serving as a top State Department official in the 1950s and later as NASA’s leader, may have been complicit in efforts to purge gay and lesbian people from government jobs. NASA investigated, but found no evidence directly linking Webb to the purges.

Sean O’Keefe, a former secretary of the navy and NASA administrator from 2001 to 2004, decided that Webb’s contributions should be honored by having his name on what was originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope. Despite recent conjecture about whether Webb tolerated discrimination against gay and lesbian employees, O’Keefe told me, “There’s not a shred of evidence to connect James Webb to any of it.”

O’Keefe, now a professor at Syracuse University, never met Webb, but he is an admirer of what Webb achieved. Shortly after President Kennedy appointed Webb to NASA, he announced in a 1962 speech that the U.S. would reach the moon before the end of the decade.

“After Kennedy’s speech there were guys sitting around saying how are we going to do this?” O’Keefe said. “Webb said we can do this, but the only way is if all of you work together and get a whole lot smarter than you would be alone.”

Webb’s ability to inspire collaborative and dedicated effort across a wide range of scientific fields and skills helped NASA reach the moon in 1969.

“It’s not that we didn’t have the technology, but we didn’t have the imagination to think it’s possible. He made it possible,” O’Keefe said.

If all goes well, the James Webb Space Telescope will offer a dazzling view of the universe. But the legacy of James Webb himself also offers us a new perspective. To a nation hobbled by political polarization, his legacy shows the power of common and inspired effort.

“It’s astonishing what you can do if everybody works together and shares. That is so different from what we see now,” O’Keefe said. “Shouldn’t we celebrate somebody who knew how to do that and try to figure out how to make it happen again?”

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com