Gregory Robinson, The Black Scientist Who Fixed NASA’s Giant Space Telescope Project
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.
At NASA, Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a Black man among the agency’s top managers.
Robinson was comfortable at another job working as an Associate Deputy Administrator for Programs at NASA 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.
He was happy at his original job, which put him in charge of evaluating the performance of more than 100 science missions and so he said no to the request.
“I was enjoying my work at the time,” Mr. Robinson recalls to Oe Mag.
But Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, reportedly asked him again.
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 2018 when Robinson eventually joined as its program director.
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 — had fallen by about 55 percent.
Within a few months of his appointment – efficiency reached 95 percent, with communications improved and managers more willing to share potential bad news.
How did he originally get into engineering? 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 positions have included Deputy Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and Deputy Chief Engineer.