In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the beleaguered project to build an instrument that could look back to the earliest stars in the universe, seemed to be falling apart. Again.
The parts of the telescope and its instruments were ready, but they had to be assembled and tested. The launch date was pushed further into the future, and the cost, already at $8 billion, increased again. Congress, which had provided several large cash injections over the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for more money.
At this point, Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as program director from Webb.
At the time, Mr. Robinson was the Associate Assistant Administrator for Programs at NASA, responsible for evaluating the performance of more than 100 scientific missions.
He said no. “I enjoyed my work then,” recalled Mr. Robinson.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science, asked him again.
“He had a kind of confluence of two abilities,” said Dr. Reserve through 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 this interpersonal activity to gain trust. So he can walk into a room, he can sit in a cafeteria, and when he leaves the cafeteria, he knows half the people.”
Finally Mr. Robinson gave in. In March 2018, he took on the task of getting the telescope back on course and into space.
“He twisted both my arms to take over 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 executives.
“Certainly it’s an inspiration to see me in that role,” he said, “and it also confirms that they can be there too.”
He says there are now many black engineers working at NASA, but “certainly not as many as there should be,” and most have not risen high enough to be seen by the public, such as attending press conferences , as does Mr. Robinson the start of Webb.
“We still have a lot of things to improve,” said Mr. Robinson.
Born in Danville, Virginia on the southern edge of the state, he was the ninth of eleven children. His parents were tobacco tenants. He attended an elementary school for black children through fifth grade when the school district was finally integrated in 1970.
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling almost a million miles to reach a place beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the cosmos.
He was the only one in his family interested in science and math, with a football scholarship funding his way to Virginia Union University in Richmond. He later transferred to Howard University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Howard.
He started working at NASA in 1989, following some friends who had already worked there. Over the years he has served as Associate Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Deputy Chief Engineer.
The Webb job came amid bad publicity for the project.
The target launch date had again been pushed back from 2019 to May 2020. NASA had set up a review panel of outside experts to advise on what needed to be done to get the Webb on target.
A month into Mr. Robinson’s tenure, a botched test provided a vivid example of how much needed fixing.
Spacecraft must survive the violent vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. Embarrassingly, when Webb was shaken, screws holding the cover of the telescope’s large, fragile sunshield came loose.
“It set us back months – like 10 months – just this one thing,” said Mr. Robinson. The launch date was pushed back to March 2021, and the price increased by another $800 million.
The incident appeared to be a repeat of previous problems encountered by the Webb project. When the telescope was named Webb in 2002, it had already projected a budget of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for its launch in 2010. By the time 2010 arrived, the launch date had been pushed back to 2014, and the telescope’s estimated cost had increased to $5.1 billion. After reviews found both the budget and timeline unrealistic, NASA reset the program in 2011 with a much higher budget, not to exceed $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date.
After the 2011 reset, the program appeared to be in good shape for several years. “They hit milestones,” said Mr. Robinson. “Really good game plan margin.”
But he added: “Things happen there that you don’t see. The ghosts always catch you, don’t they?”
For the bolts that popped off during the shake test, it turned out that the design drawings didn’t specify how much torque to apply. The contractor, Northrop Grumman, had to decide that and they weren’t tight enough.
“They should have a spec to make sure it’s right,” said Mr. Robinson.
The review panel released its report, identified a number of issues and made 32 recommendations. NASA followed them all, Mr. Robinson said.
One of the recommendations was to conduct a full spacecraft scan to identify “embedded problems” — failures that occurred without anyone noticing.
The engineers checked the drawings and specifications. They reviewed the purchase requests to ensure that the items ordered met specifications and that the suppliers shipped the correct items.
“Several teams were set up, led by the most experienced people,” said Robinson. “They really dug into the paperwork.”
For the most part, the hardware actually matched what was originally designed. A few things didn’t add up – Mr. Robinson said none of them would have to result in a catastrophic failure – and these were fixed.
By the time Mr. Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency — a measure of how the pace of work compared to what was planned — was down about 55 percent, Dr. to book. This was in large part the result of avoidable human error.
dr Zurbuchen said the Webb team was full of bright, qualified people who had become wary of voicing criticism. He credited Mr. Robinson with turning things around. In a matter of months, efficiency increased to as much as 95 percent, with better communication and managers more willing to share potential bad news.
“You needed someone who could earn the team’s trust and we needed to find out what was wrong with the team,” said Dr. to book. “The speed with which he flipped this thing was just amazing.”
However, a number of new issues caused additional delays and cost overruns. Some, like the pandemic and a problem with the payload casing of the European-made Ariane 5 rocket, were beyond Mr Robinson’s control. Other human errors occurred, such as last November when a clamp strap attaching the telescope to the launch mount snapped, shaking the telescope but causing no damage.
But when Ariane 5 finally launched at Christmas with Webb, everything went smoothly and the deployment has been smooth ever since.
Once observations begin, Webb will soon no longer need a program director.
Mr. Robinson says with pride that he worked his way out of a job.