Science

Greg Robinson fixed NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, reluctantly

Greg Robinson fixed NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, reluctantly
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In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the embattled project to build an instrument that could observe the first stars in the universe, seemed to be going off the rails. Again.

The parts of the telescope and its instruments were complete, but they needed to be assembled and tested. The launch date was being pushed further into the future and the costs, already approaching 8 billion, were rising again. Congress, which had provided several major injections of funding over the years, was not happy that NASA was asking for even more money.

It was then that Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as director of Webb programs.

At the time, Mr. Robinson was a deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA, making him responsible for evaluating the performance of more than 100 science missions.

He said no. “I was enjoying my job at the time,” Mr. Robinson recalled.

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

“He had a kind of confluence of two abilities,” Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson. “The first is that he had seen many projects, including projects that were in trouble. And the second piece is that he has that interpersonal activity to gain trust. So he can walk into a room, he can sit in a coffee shop, and when he leaves the coffee shop, he knows half the people.”

Eventually, Mr. Robinson relented. In March 2018, he set about getting the telescope back on track and taking it into space.

“I twisted both of my arms to grab hold of Webb,” Mr. Robinson said.

His path to that role seemed unlikely.

At NASA, Mr. Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a black man among the agency’s top managers.

“Certainly people who see me in this role are an inspiration,” he said, “and also recognize that they can be there too.”

He says there are plenty of black engineers working at NASA now, but “certainly not as many as there should be” and most haven’t risen high enough to be seen by the public, for example, speaking at press conferences as Mr. Robinson has followed Webb’s pitch.

“We have a lot of things going on to try to improve,” Mr. Robinson said.

Born in Danville, Virginia, in the far south of the state, he was the ninth of 11 children. His parents were tobacco sharecroppers. He attended an elementary school for black boys until the fifth grade, when he finally joined the school district in 1970.

He was the only one in his family who devoted himself to science and mathematics, with a football scholarship that allowed him to enter 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, his jobs have included deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and deputy chief engineer.

Webb’s assignment came amid bad publicity for the project.

The target date for launch had been pushed back again, from May 2020 to 2019. NASA had established a review board of outside experts to advise on what needed to be done to get Webb over the finish line.

A month into Mr. Robinson’s term, a failed test provided a vivid illustration of how much needed fixing.

Spacecraft have to survive the vigorous vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. As Webb was shaken, embarrassingly, the screws holding the telescope’s large, flimsy sunshield cover loosened.

“That set us back months, about 10 months, just that,” Mr. Robinson said. The release date was pushed back to March 2021, and the price increased another $800 million.

The incident seemed like a repeat of Previous problems the Webb project had run into. When the telescope was named after Webb in 2002, it had a projected budget of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for its launch in 2010. By the time 2010 rolled around, the launch date had been moved to 2014, and costs estimates for the telescope had risen to 5.1 billion. After reviews found both the budget and schedule to be unrealistic, in 2011 NASA reinstated the program with a much higher budget not to exceed $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date.

For several years after the 2011 reboot, the show seemed to be in good shape. “They were passing milestones,” Mr. Robinson said. “Very good programming margin.”

But, he added, “things happen in there that you don’t see. Ghosts always get you, right?

In the case of the bolts that came loose during the shake test, it turned out that the engineering drawings did not specify how much torque needed to be applied. That was left to the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to decide, and they weren’t strict enough.

“You should have a specification to make sure it’s correct,” Mr. Robinson said.

The review board released its report, noted a number of problems and made 32 recommendations. NASA followed them all, Mr. Robinson said.

One of the recommendations was to perform an audit of the entire spacecraft to identify “built-in problems” – errors that occurred without anyone noticing.

The engineers reviewed the drawings and specifications. They reviewed purchase requisitions to ensure that what was ordered matched the specifications and that the correct items were supplied by the vendors.

“Several teams were formed, led by the most experienced people,” he said. Robinson said. “They really looked into the paperwork.”

For the most part, the hardware matched what was originally designed. Some things didn’t match up – Mr. Robinson said none of them would have to lead to catastrophic failure, and that was fixed.

When Mr. Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency — a measure of how the pace of work compares to what had been planned — dropped by about 55 percent, Dr. Zurbuchen said. . That, in large part, was the result of avoidable human error.

Dr. Zurbuchen said Webb’s team was full of smart, capable people who had become wary of raising criticism. He credited Mr. Robinson with turning things around. Within a few months, efficiency was up to 95 percent, with better communications and managers more willing to share potential bad news.

“Someone was needed who could get the trust of the team and what we needed to figure out what was wrong with the team,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “The speed at which he flipped this thing around was just amazing.”

However, several new problems caused additional delays and cost overruns. Some, like the pandemic and a problem with the payload enclosure on the European-made Ariane 5 rocket, were out of Mr. Robinson’s control. Additional human errors occurred, such as last November when a clamp securing the telescope to the launch mount broke, shaking the telescope but causing no damage.

But when the Ariane 5 carrying Webb finally launched over Christmas, everything went smoothly, and the rollout has since gone smoothly.

With observations beginning, there will soon be no need for a program manager for Webb.

Mister. Robinson proudly says that he is out of a job.

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