This week, the world saw the “deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe” ever taken by the U.S. Space Agency, NASA. The milestone project was led by Gregory Robinson, a Black scientist at the agency.
Robinson was comfortable at another job when he was asked to take over a stalled NASA project in 2018 after billions of dollars were sunk into the program without yielding any results and causing concern among congress members. According to the New York Times, nearly $8 billion had been invested into the James Webb Space Telescope project which first started in 2002.
The initial launch date was 2010 with a budget of $1 billion to $3.5 billion. However, the project was pushed back to 2014 and then to 2018 when Robinson joined as its program director.
Before assuming the lead role of the James Webb Space Telescope project, Robinson was NASA’s deputy associate administrator of programs where he assessed the performance of more than 100 science missions. When he was approached to lead the project, he first declined the offer but he was convinced by Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, who told Robinson that he “had a kind of the confluence of two skills.”
“The first one is he had seen many projects, including projects that were in trouble,” Zurbuchen told NYT. “And the second piece is he has that interpersonal trust-gaining activity. So he can go into a room, he can sit in a cafeteria, and by the time he leaves the cafeteria, he knows half of the people.”
As the program director of Webb telescope, he noticed that the major challenge bedeviling the project was “avoidable human error.” To bring efficiency, he improved communication and encouraged managers to be willing to share bad news.
“You needed somebody who could get the trust of the team, and what we needed to figure out was what was wrong with the team,” Zurbuchen told The Times. “The speed at which he turned this thing around was just astounding.”
With Robinson as program director, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is to build an instrument to gaze at some of the universe’s earliest stars, was finally launched on the Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas 2021. It has been a smooth deployment since that year, according to the New York Times.
Robinson is a son of tobacco sharecroppers. He was born in Danville, Virginia, and the 9th of 11 children. He attended Virginia Union University in Richmond on a football scholarship, later transferring to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He earned a bachelor’s in math from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Howard. He started working at NASA in 1989. He has worked in the past as deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and deputy chief engineer.
According to the New York Times, Robinson, 62, is one of NASA’s top-level managers. “Certainly people seeing me in this role is an inspiration and also it’s acknowledging they can be there, too,” Robinson said.
Robinson also noted that there are many Black engineers working at NASA now, adding that many have not risen high enough to be seen by the public. “We have many things going on to try to improve,” Robinson said.