He repaired NASA’s giant space telescope, reluctantly

In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the embattled project to build an instrument capable of looking at the first stars in the universe, seemed to be derailed. Still.

The parts of the telescope and its instruments were complete, but they needed to be assembled and tested. The launch date was moving even further into the future and the costs, already close to $8 billion, were rising again. Congress, which had provided several major injections of funding over the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for even more money.

It was then that Gregory Robinson was asked to take over as Webb’s program director.

At the time, Mr. Robinson was NASA’s Deputy Associate Program Administrator, making him responsible for evaluating the performance of more than 100 science missions.

He said no. “I really liked my job back then,” recalls Mr. Robinson.

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

“He had a kind of confluence of two skills,” Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson. “The first is that he had seen many projects, including struggling projects. And the second element is that he has this interpersonal activity of gaining confidence. So he can walk into a room, he can walk into a room. sit in a cafeteria, and by the time he leaves the cafeteria, he knows half the people.

Eventually Mr. Robinson relented. In March 2018, he took on the task of getting the telescope back on track and in space.

“He twisted both of my arms to get control of Webb,” Mr Robinson said.

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 people seeing me in this role is inspiring,” he said, “and it’s also acknowledging that they can be there too.”

He says there are many 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 by participating at press conferences as Mr. Robinson followed. Webb’s launch.

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

Born in Danville, Virginia, along the southern edge of the state, 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 pursue studies in science and mathematics, a football scholarship allowing him to go to Virginia Union University in Richmond. He then transferred to Howard University. He received 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 friends who had previously worked there. Over the years, his positions have been Deputy Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Deputy Chief Engineer.

The Webb mission came amid poor publicity for the project.

The launch target date had slipped again, to May 2020 from 2019. NASA had set up a review board of outside 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 stark illustration of just how much needed fixing.

Spaceships must survive the vigorous vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. When Webb was shaken, embarrassingly, the screws holding the cover of the telescope’s large, flimsy sunshade loosened.

“It set us back several months – about 10 months – just that one thing,” Robinson said. The launch date has been pushed back to March 2021 and the price has increased by another $800 million.

The incident looked like a repeat of earlier problems experienced by the Webb project. When the telescope was named Webb in 2002, it had an expected budget of $1 billion to $3.5 billion for launch as early as 2010. When 2010 arrived, the launch date had moved to 2014, and the estimated costs for the telescope were increased to $5.1 billion. . After reviews found the budget and schedule to be unrealistic, in 2011 NASA reset the program with a much larger budget of no more than $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date.

For several years after the 2011 reset, the program appeared to be in good shape. “They were reaching important milestones,” Robinson said. “Very good schedule margin.”

But, he added, “there are things going on in there that you don’t see. Ghosts always catch you, don’t they?

For the screws that jumped during the jerk test, it turned out that the technical drawings did not specify the tightening torque to be applied. That was up to the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to decide, and they weren’t tight enough.

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

The review panel released its report, noting a range of issues and making 32 recommendations. NASA tracked them all, Robinson said.

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

Engineers checked the drawings and specifications. They reviewed purchase requisitions to ensure that what was ordered matched specifications and that suppliers were supplying the correct items.

“There were several teams set up, led by the most experienced people,” Robinson said. “They really dug into the paperwork.”

For the most part, the hardware was indeed what was originally designed. Some things didn’t fit – Mr Robinson said none of them should lead to catastrophic failure – and these have been fixed.

When Mr Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency – a measure of how well the pace of work compared to what had been planned – was down around 55% , said Dr. Zurbuchen. This, in large part, was the result of preventable human error.

Dr Zurbuchen said the Webb team was full of smart, qualified people, who feared raising criticism. He credited Mr. Robinson for turning the tables. Within months, efficiency was up to 95%, with better communications and managers more willing to share potential bad news.

“You needed someone who could gain the trust of the team and what we needed to figure out was what was wrong with the team,” Dr Zurbuchen said. “The speed at which he transformed this thing was just astounding.”

However, a number of new issues have resulted in further delays and cost overruns. Some, like the pandemic and a problem with the European-made Ariane 5 rocket’s payload case, were beyond Mr Robinson’s control. Other human errors have occurred, such as last November when a clamp band securing the telescope to the launch pad broke, shaking the telescope but causing no damage.

But when the Ariane 5 carrying Webb finally launched over Christmas, everything went off without a hitch and the rollout has been smooth sailing ever since.

With the start of sightings, there will soon be no need for a program director for Webb.

Mr. Robinson proudly says he lost a job.

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