In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the embattled project to build an instrument that could look at the oldest stars in the universe, appeared to be derailed. second.
The parts and instruments of the telescope were complete, but they had to be assembled and tested. The launch date was slipping further into the future, and costs, already approaching $8 billion, were rising again. Congress, which had provided several large batches of funding over the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for more money.
That’s when Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as Web Program Director.
At the time, Mr. Robinson was Associate Deputy Administrator for Programs at NASA, which put him in charge of evaluating the performance of more than 100 science missions.
He said no. “I was enjoying my work at the time,” Mr. Robinson recalls.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, asked him again.
“He had a kind of confluence of two skills,” Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson. “The first is that he has seen many projects, including projects that have been in trouble. And the second piece is that he has the business of gaining trust between people. So he can get into a room, he can sit in the cafeteria, and by the time he leaves the cafeteria, he knows half the people.”
In the end, Mr. Robinson relented. In March 2018, he embarked on a mission to get the telescope back on track and into space.
“He twisted my arm to control Webb,” said Mr. Robinson.
His path to this role seemed unlikely.
At NASA, Mr. Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a black man among the agency’s top managers.
“The people who see me in this role are definitely an inspiration, and it’s also an acknowledgment that they could be there too,” he said.
He says there are many black engineers working at NASA now, but “certainly not as many as they should be” and most of them haven’t risen to a high enough level for the public to see, for example participating in press conferences as Mr. Robinson has followed up on Webb’s launch.
“We have a lot of things we’re trying to improve,” Mr. Robinson said.
Born in Danville, Virginia, along the state’s southern edge, he was the ninth of 11 children. His parents were tobacco farmers. He attended an elementary school for black children through fifth grade, when the school district was finally incorporated in 1970.
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling nearly a million miles to reach a location beyond the Moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the universe.
He was the only one in his family who pursued science and mathematics, with a football scholarship on his way to Virginia Union University in Richmond. He later transferred to Howard University. He received a BA in Mathematics from Virginia Union, and a BS in Electrical Engineering from Howard.
He began working at NASA in 1989, following up on some friends who already worked there. Over the years, his jobs have included Deputy Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and Deputy Chief Engineer.
Webb’s assignment came amid poor publicity for the project.
The launch target date has been pushed back again, to May 2020 as of 2019. And NASA has created a review board of outside experts to advise on what needs to be done to get Webb to the finish line.
A month into Mr. Robinson’s term, a failed test provided a vivid illustration of the need for reform.
The spacecraft must withstand the strong vibrations of launch, so engineers test it by shaking it. When Webb shook, awkwardly, the bolts holding the telescope’s huge, fragile sun-shield cover exploded.
“It set us back months – about 10 months – that’s the only thing,” Mr. Robinson said. The launch date has been pushed back to March 2021, and the price has gone up by another $800 million.
The accident looked like a re Previous issues encountered by the Webb . project. When the Webb telescope was named in 2002, it had a projected budget of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for a launch early in 2010. When 2010 arrived, the launch date moved to 2014, and the telescope’s estimated costs rose to $5.1 billion . . After reviews found both the budget and schedule to be unrealistic, in 2011 NASA reset the program with a much higher budget of just $8 billion and a launch date of October 2018.
For several years after the 2011 reset, the software appeared to be in good shape. “They were cutting milestones,” Mr. Robinson said. “Really good table margin.”
But he added, “Things happen there that you don’t see. Ghosts always catch you, don’t they?”
For the bolts that popped out during the vibration test, it turned out that the engineering drawings did not specify how much torque to apply. That was left to the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to decide, and it wasn’t tight enough.
“You have to have specifications to make sure they are correct,” Mr. Robinson said.
The review board released its report, noted a series of issues, and made 32 recommendations. Mr. Robinson said that NASA followed them all.
One recommendation was to conduct an audit of the entire spacecraft to identify “embedded problems” – errors that went unnoticed.
Engineers checked blueprints and specifications. They have considered requisitions to ensure that what was ordered met specifications and that the suppliers provided the correct items.
“Multiple teams have been formed, led by the most experienced people,” Mr. Robinson said. “They really dug into the paperwork.”
For the most part, the hardware actually matches what was originally designed. Some things didn’t match – Mr. Robinson said none of them would lead to a fiasco – and those things were fixed.
When Mr. Robinson took over as program director, the efficiency of Webb’s schedule — a measure of how quickly work was done compared to what was planned — fell by about 55 percent, Dr. Zurbuchen said. It was, in large part, the result of human error that could have been avoided.
Dr. Zurbuchen said Webb’s team was full of smart and skilled people who had become wary of raising criticism. I credit Mr. Robinson with turning things around. Within a few months, efficiency reached 95 percent, with communications improved and managers more willing to share potentially bad news.
“I needed someone who could get the team’s trust, and what we needed to find out was what was wrong with the team,” said Dr. Zurbuchen. “The speed at which he ran this thing was amazing.”
However, a number of new issues caused additional delays and cost overruns. Some, like the pandemic and a payload bay problem on the European-made Ariane 5 missile, were out of Mr. Robinson’s control. Additional human errors occurred, such as last November when the clamp securing the telescope to the launch mount broke, causing the telescope to vibrate without causing damage.
But when Webb’s Ariane 5 finally launched at Christmas, everything went without a hitch, and publishing since then has gone smoothly.
With the onset of feedback, the Webb Administrator will soon no longer be needed.
Mr. Robinson says, proudly, that he worked himself without a job.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”