In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the beleaguered project to build an instrument that could look back at the universe’s earliest stars, was going off the rails. Again.
The telescope and its pieces of equipment were complete, but they needed to be assembled and tested. The launch date was slipping further into the future, and costs, which were already approaching $8 billion, were rising again. Congress, which had provided several large investments of funding over the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for more funding.
This is when Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as Webb’s Program Director.
At the time, Mr. Robinson was deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA, making him responsible for assessing the performance of more than 100 science missions.
He said no. “I was enjoying my job at the time,” recalled Mr. Robinson.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, asked him again.
Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson, “He had a sort of amalgamation of two skills.” “The first is that he had seen many projects, including those that were in trouble. And the second piece is that he has a mutual 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 the people.
Eventually, Mr. Robinson agreed. In March 2018, he stepped into the task of getting the telescope on track and back in space.
“He twisted both my arms to capture the web,” said Mr. Robinson.
His path to that role seemed impossible.
At NASA, Mr. Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a black man among the agency’s top-level managers.
“Certainly the people who see me in this role are an inspiration, and are also acknowledging that they could be there too,” he said.
He says that there are now many black engineers working at NASA, but “certainly not as many as there should be” and most have not grown high enough to be seen by the public, for example as Mr. Robinson’s News Participate in conferences. Web launch.
“We have a lot of things going on to improve,” Mr Robinson said.
Born in Danville, Va., along the state’s southern edge, he was the ninth of 11 children. His parents were tobacco sharecroppers. He attended an elementary school for black children until fifth grade, when the school district was finally integrated in 1970.
He was the only one in his family to study science and math, with a football scholarship paying his way to Virginia Union University in Richmond. He was later transferred to Howard University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Howard.
He began working at NASA in 1989, after a few friends who had already worked there. Over the years, his jobs included deputy director and deputy chief engineer of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The web assignment came in the midst of bad publicity for the project.
The launch target date was again slipped from 2019 to May 2020. NASA had set up a review board of outside experts to advise what needs to be done to get Webb to the finish line.
A month after Mr Robinson’s tenure, a failed trial provided a vivid example of how much needed to be fixed.
Spacecraft have to survive the loud vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. Embarrassingly, when Webb was shaken, the screws holding the cover of the telescope’s large, delicate sun shield came loose.
“It put us back months – about 10 months – just one thing,” Mr Robinson said. The launch date was pushed to March 2021, and the price was increased by $800 million.
This incident seemed like a repetition of earlier troubles in the web project. When the telescope was renamed Webb in 2002, there was a budget forecast of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for launch in early 2010. When 2010 arrived, the launch date was moved to 2014, and the estimated cost for the telescope had risen to $5.1 billion. , After a review found both the budget and the schedule to be unrealistic, in 2011, NASA reset the program with a much higher budget to no more than $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date.
For several years following the 2011 reset, the program appeared to be in good shape. “They were knocking milestones,” said Mr. Robinson. “Really good schedule margin.”
But, he added, “There are things you don’t see. Ghosts always catch you, don’t you?”
For the screw that came out during the shake test, it turned out that the engineering drawings did not specify how much torque needed to be applied. It was left to the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to decide, and they weren’t tight enough.
“You have to have a specification to make sure it’s right,” Robinson said.
The Review Board released its report, which addressed a number of issues and made 32 recommendations. NASA followed them all, Robinson said.
One of the recommendations was auditing the entire spacecraft to identify “embedded problems” – mistakes that occurred without anyone noticing.
Engineers check drawings and specifications. They looked at purchase requests to ensure that what was ordered matched specifications and that suppliers provided the correct items.
“Many teams were established under the leadership of the most experienced people,” said Mr Robinson. “They really dug into the paperwork.”
For the most part, the hardware really matched what was originally designed. Some things didn’t match – Mr Robinson said none of them would have caused catastrophic failure – and they were fixed.
When Mr Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency – a measure of work speed compared to what had been planned – was about 55 percent lower, Dr. Zurbuchen said. That, in large part, was the result of avoidable human error.
Dr. Zurbuchen said the web team was full of smart, efficient people who were wary of criticizing. He credited Mr. Robinson for turning things around. Within a few months, efficiency was up to 95 percent, with better communication and managers more willing to share potentially bad news.
“You needed someone who could gain the trust of the team and we needed to figure out what was wrong with the team,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “The speed with which he spun this thing was amazing.”
However, several new issues caused additional delays and increased costs. Some, such as the pandemic and an issue with the payload attachments on the European-made Ariane 5 rocket, were beyond Mr Robinson’s control. Additional human errors occurred as of last November, when a clamp band securing the telescope to the launch mount broke, causing the telescope to move but not damage.
But when the Ariane 5 carrying Webb finally launched over Christmas, everything proceeded without a hitch, and deployment has been going smoothly since then.
With the introduction of comments, a program director for the web will no longer be needed.
Mr. Robinson proudly says he has put himself out of a job.