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Greg Robinson Fixed NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Reluctantly

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In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the beleaguered project to construct an instrument that might gaze back to the earliest stars within the universe, gave the impression to be going off the rails. Again.

The pieces of the telescope and its instruments were complete, but they needed to be assembled and tested. The launch date was slipping further into the long run, and the prices, already approaching $8 billion, were again rising. Congress, which had provided several major infusions of financing through the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for yet extra money.

That is when Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as program director of Webb.

On the time, Mr. Robinson was the deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA, making him liable for assessing the performance of greater than 100 science missions.

He said no. “I used to be having fun with my job on the time,” Mr. Robinson recalled.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, asked him again.

“He had a type of the confluence of two skills,” Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson. “The primary one is he had seen many projects, including projects that were in trouble. And the second piece is he has that interpersonal trust-gaining activity. So he can go right into a room, he can sit in a cafeteria, and by the point he leaves the cafeteria, he knows half of the people.”

Eventually, Mr. Robinson relented. In March 2018, he stepped into the duty of getting the telescope back on target and into space.

“He twisted each of my arms to take over Webb,” Mr. Robinson said.

His path to that role seemed an unlikely one.

At NASA, Mr. Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a Black man among the many agency’s top-level managers.

“Definitely people seeing me on this role is an inspiration,” he said, “and in addition it’s acknowledging they might be there, too.”

He says there are various Black engineers working at NASA now, but “actually not as many as there must be” and most haven’t risen high enough to be seen by the general public, for instance collaborating in news conferences as Mr. Robinson has following the launch of Webb.

“We’ve got many things occurring to try to enhance,” 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 college district finally integrated in 1970.

After traveling nearly a million miles to succeed in a location beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the cosmos.

He was the just one in his family who pursued science and math, with a football scholarship paying his approach to Virginia Union University in Richmond. He later transferred to Howard University. He earned a bachelor’s in math from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Howard.

He began working at NASA in 1989, following some friends who had already worked there. Over time, his jobs included deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and deputy chief engineer.

The Webb task got here within the midst of bad publicity for the project.

The goal date for launching had slipped again, to May 2020 from 2019. NASA had arrange a review board of out of doors experts to advise what needed to be done to get the Webb to the finish line.

A month into Mr. Robinson’s tenure, a botched test provided a vivid illustration of how much needed to be fixed.

Spacecraft must survive the vigorous vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. When Webb was shaken, embarrassingly, screws holding the quilt of the telescope’s large, fragile sun shield popped loose.

“That set us back months — about 10 months — just that one thing,” Mr. Robinson said. The launch date was pushed to March 2021, and the worth tag rose by one other $800 million.

The incident gave the look of a replay of earlier troubles the Webb project had run into. When the telescope was named Webb in 2002, it had a budget forecast of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for launch as early as 2010. When 2010 arrived, the launch date had moved to 2014, and estimated costs for the telescope had risen to $5.1 billion. After reviews found each the budget and the schedule to be unrealistic, in 2011, NASA reset this system with a much higher budget to not exceed $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date.

For several years after the 2011 reset, this system seemed to be in good condition. “They were knocking off milestones,” Mr. Robinson said. “Really good schedule margin.”

But, he added, “Things occur in there that you simply don’t see. The ghosts all the time catch you, right?”

For the screws that popped off throughout the shake test, it turned out that the engineering drawings didn’t specify how much torque needed to be applied. That was left to the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to determine, they usually weren’t tight enough.

“It is best to have a specification to ensure it’s right,” Mr. Robinson said.

The review board released its report, noting a series of issues, and made 32 recommendations. NASA followed all of them, Mr. Robinson said.

One among the recommendations was performing an audit of your entire spacecraft to discover “embedded problems” — mistakes that occurred without anyone noticing.

The engineers checked the drawings and specifications. They checked out the acquisition requests to ensure that what was ordered matched the specifications and that the suppliers provided the proper items.

“There have been multiple teams arrange, led by essentially the most experienced people,” Mr. Robinson said. “They really dug into the paperwork.”

For essentially the most part, the hardware did indeed match what was originally designed. A number of things didn’t match — Mr. Robinson said none of them would must led to a catastrophic failure — and people were fixed.

When Mr. Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency — a measure of how the pace of labor compared with what had been planned — was down at about 55 percent, Dr. Zurbuchen said. That, largely, was the results of avoidable human error.

Dr. Zurbuchen said the Webb team had been stuffed with smart, expert people, who had change into wary of raising criticism. He credited Mr. Robinson with turning things around. Inside a couple of months, the efficiency was as much as 95 percent, with higher communications and managers more willing to share potential bad news.

“You needed any person who could get the trust of the team and what we wanted to determine was what was incorrect with the team,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “The speed at which he turned this thing around was just astounding.”

A lot of latest issues, though, caused additional delays and value overruns. Some, just like the pandemic and a difficulty with the payload enclosure on the European-made Ariane 5 rocket, were out of Mr. Robinson’s control. Additional human mistakes did occur, like last November when a clamp band securing the telescope to the launch mount snapped, shaking the telescope but not causing damage.

But when the Ariane 5 carrying Webb finally launched on Christmas, every little thing proceeded with no hitch, and the deployment since then has gone easily.

With the observations starting, there’ll soon be no more need for a program director for Webb.

Mr. Robinson says, with pride, that he has worked himself out of a job.

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