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Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The Who Telescope?

"Uh Oh."

That's what Niles said this morning when he checked his mail and found this (for a while you can go to NASA's main site for a nicely done web page with a few pictures).

The point of Niles's outburst is that the telescope-formerly-known-as-the-NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope) is going to be known as the James Webb Space Telescope, after James E. Webb, NASA's second administrator, who led during the Apollo program and the first interplanetary explorations. The first space telescope, you'll remember, was named for Edwin Hubble. Hubble was chosen because of his research on the expansion of the universe; HST was built in part to see deeper into the Universe (as in fact it has).

So we have one telescope named for one of the discoverers of the secrets of the universe, and one named for a...bureaucrat. I don't know anything of Webb except what I read on the web page. I'm sure he provided wonderful leadership that was vital to the triumphs of that legendary era. He no doubt deserves to be honored in a hundred ways. I just don't think naming a satellite after him, especially the successor to the Hubble, should be one of them.

The NGST is an infrared telescope, and it would be fitting to name it after a pioneer of infrared astronomy. Unfortunately, most of them aren't dead yet, the field having really taken off only about 40 years ago. Here's a beautiful page about infrared astronomy. Check out the history section; it names few names, but among the ones it really singles out the only dead ones are Herschel and Langley. However, Herschel already has a space telescope being named for him (in addition to this telescope), and Langley has other things named for him.

Quoth Niles: "[Current NASA administrator] Sean O'Keefe's just doing that so that one day we'll send up a bucket of bits and call it the Sean O'Keefe Tachyon Telescope." I fear he's right.

Let's see if either of us ever get invited to sit on NASA committees now.