This week, NASA released the “deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe” it has ever taken. The milestone project was led by Gregory Robinson, a Black scientist at the agency.
Robinson was comfortable with his other job when he was asked to take over a stalled NASA project in 2018 after billions of dollars had been sunk into the program with no results, causing concern among members of Congress. The New York Times reported that nearly $8 billion had been invested in the James Webb Space Telescope project, which began in 2002.
The initial launch date was set for 2010, with a budget ranging from $1 billion to $3.5 billion. The project, however, was pushed back to 2014, and then to 2018, when Robinson was hired as its program director.
Robinson was NASA’s deputy associate administrator of programs before taking the helm of the James Webb Space Telescope project, where he evaluated the performance of more than 100 science missions. He initially declined the offer to lead the project, but was persuaded 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 is that he had seen many projects, including troubled projects,” Zurbuchen told the New York Times. “The second component is that he has that interpersonal trust-building activity. So he can walk into a room, sit in a cafeteria, and by the time he leaves, he knows half the people.”
As the program director for the Webb telescope, he noticed that the project’s major challenge was “avoidable human error.” He improved communication and encouraged managers to be willing to share bad news in order to increase efficiency.
“You needed someone who could gain the team’s trust, and we needed to figure out what was wrong with the team,” Zurbuchen told The New York Times. “The speed with which he turned this thing around was incredible.”
The James Webb Space Telescope, which will build an instrument to look at some of the universe’s earliest stars, was finally launched on the Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas 2021, with Robinson as program director. According to the New York Times, the deployment has been smooth since that year.
Robinson is a tobacco sharecropper’s son. He was the ninth of eleven children born in Danville, Virginia. On a football scholarship, he attended Virginia Union University in Richmond before transferring to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Howard. He began working for NASA in 1989. He previously served as the deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and as the deputy chief engineer.
Robinson, 62, is one of NASA’s top-level managers, according to the New York Times. “Certainly, seeing me in this role is an inspiration, and it also acknowledges that they, too, can be there,” Robinson said.
Robinson also mentioned that there are many Black engineers working at NASA now, but that many of them have not risen high enough to be noticed by the public. “We’re doing a lot of things to try to improve,” Robinson said.