How the son of sharecroppers helped send the world's most powerful telescope to space
Updated July 15, 2022 at 1:04 PM ET
NASA released the first batch of images from the James Webb telescope this week, wowing the world with never-before-seen views of ancient and distant galaxies.
The approximately $10 billion telescope was decades in the making, a partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency that involved some 20,000 collaborators across 29 countries and 14 U.S. states. It finally launched in December 2021 after a long string of setbacks and delays that led some astronomers to fear it might never get off the ground.
Gregory Robinson wasn't one of them. The career NASA employee was brought in as director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program in March 2018 to help get the project back on the rails, over the finish line and into space. Despite the challenges, he tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that he never doubted whether it would work.
"As we moved closer to launch and even as we launched, I never had a concern on the outcome," Robinson says. "My biggest concern was, 'Let's get on with it already, get to the launch site and get it off the ground.' "
While Robinson credits the work of many others in making the telescope a success, he's received special recognition for the role he played — including being recognized as one of TIME's most influential people of 2022.
In his tribute, NASA astrophysicist and Nobel laureate John Mather wrote that Robinson "channeled the forces of human nature and ingenuity," from NASA and Congress to foreign space agencies and aerospace companies.
"Our teams orbit around Greg, because we trust him to ask questions and understand our concerns and respect our opinions," Mather wrote. "He makes it look easy, but I can barely imagine how he does it, and I admire him tremendously for it."
Robinson — who most recently served as the deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA's Science Mission Directorate — has worked on several high-profile missions and held numerous leadership roles since joining the space agency in 1989.
But Robinson, the ninth of 11 children born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Virginia, says he didn't exactly grow up dreaming about space ... other than watching the moon landing.
"I often refer to Webb as our Apollo moment today," he adds. "But space was not high on my list."
Football was Robinson's ticket to college — and space
Danville, Va., is less than five hours away from agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., but Robinson says his childhood was "a long way from NASA."
Under the sharecropping system, a landowner will allow people to farm their land in exchange for a portion of the crops produced. Robinson describes it as a product from slavery through Jim Crow that still continues today.
"There are lots of nuances in there ... who keeps the books, and who alters the books. And as you go through that process there's winners and there's losers," he says. "And it keeps the losers tied to the farm so they can never get away to go on and do other things."
Robinson — who began his education in a racially segregated elementary school — recalled to The Washington Post that his teachers would tell students they could do anything they wanted if they had an education, which appealed to him because he wanted to "get out of Danville and have a better life."
He tells Morning Edition he really enjoyed math and science, and had a knack for those subjects. He also had a knack for football, which earned him a scholarship to Virginia Union University in Richmond.
"I thought I was a top-notch football player, and for my high school and my county and my district I probably was," he says. "But when I got to college the real athletes showed up, and that was a big difference. But it was really my ticket to get to college."
He wanted to major in engineering, but Virginia Union didn't offer it. They did have a dual degree program with Howard University, so he ended up graduating with degrees in both math and electrical engineering.
It was during Robinson's time at Howard that NASA landed on his radar. He recalls having friends who interned at the Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Maryland and really enjoyed it. And while he didn't originally intend to work in the industry, he eventually made his way to NASA too.
"Once you walk through the gate and get started, the bug bites you fast and the bug never stops biting," he says.
His upbringing informed his work at NASA, and whatever he does next
Robinson has worked on many spaceflight and space shuttle missions over the years and held notable leadership positions, including as the deputy center director at NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center and NASA deputy chief engineer.
And he's applied lessons from his childhood to even his most high-tech projects.
Robinson says he learned a lot living through the process of school desegregation, including how to work with many different types of people.
"One of the things I learned is not everyone is bad who doesn't look like me," he says. "As a matter of fact, there are a lot of good folks who don't look like me, and we have a lot of things in common."
He also credits sports with teaching him the importance of leading, following and being a team player.
"Both of those [lessons] really helped shape me early on," he says. "And, of course, a really good strong family was important as well."
Robinson's latest mission was to get the Webb telescope to launch and through commissioning. With that done, what comes next? He laughs that he's worked himself out of a job, and says he's considering retirement.
"Of course I have a lot of knowledge and experiences, life and professional, that I still want to share and increase impact across the globe," Robinson adds. "So I still plan to do some things, but it's time to go to the next phase of life."
The audio for this interview was produced by Lilly Quiroz and edited by Simone Popperl. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We called the director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program yesterday. Before the interview started, we asked him to test the line, and the NASA official naturally gave a countdown.
GREGORY ROBINSON: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six.
INSKEEP: You expect the rockets to start at some point. Greg Robinson is credited with saving the James Webb Space Telescope. It had struggled with missed deadlines and engineering malfunctions over years of manufacturing. But the telescope made it into space. And this week, NASA released images of distant galaxies that took people's breath away.
When you looked at the first images from the telescope, what did you see?
ROBINSON: Wow. I was just in awe. It brings a picture to life, an image to life - and each one of them, from the deep field to exoplanets, all the way through. So, yes, just like the rest of the world, I was stunned.
INSKEEP: How long did it take to reach this moment?
ROBINSON: Long before I came on, over 20 years - people like John Mather, a Nobel laureate at Goddard, was one of the pioneers of getting Webb going. As time went on and it became a real program and real project, many others were involved - over the years, about 20,000 people around the globe.
ROBINSON: More than 20 years, yes. And when you look at the industrial base, you look at NASA and all of our partners and our partners' industrial bases in other countries across 29 states in the U.S. and 14 countries around the world, that's a lot.
INSKEEP: What shape was this project in when you first took over several years ago?
ROBINSON: So I took over just over 4 1/2 years ago. Right after I came on, a couple of months or so - that's when we had the issue with the fasteners coming off on the sunshield cover during the acoustics testing.
INSKEEP: What happened?
ROBINSON: Well, an acoustics test - that's when we simulate the noise vibration from the rocket as we launch. So some of the fasteners came off. We have these covers that go over the sunshield when it's folded up, and they have to unfold in space so we can release it. Some of those fasteners came off. So that was a big blow. That set us back about 10 months and many millions of dollars. So what that did - that kind of opened a space for us to look at the entire spacecraft over a several-month period. We call them audits. And we found a few cases where we had to make some minor corrections, but nothing that would have been catastrophic to the mission.
INSKEEP: Did you have any moments when you thought this might not work?
ROBINSON: Never. Never. As we move closer to launch and even as we launched, I never had a concern on the outcome. My biggest concern was, let's get on with it already, get to the launch site and get it off the ground.
INSKEEP: I'm curious about you because you are a career NASA employee. Did you think about space when you were a kid?
ROBINSON: Other than Apollo, I did not. Certainly, I was around when we landed on the moon. That was quite exciting as well. And I often refer to Webb as our Apollo moment today. But no, space was not high on my list.
INSKEEP: I am looking at a sentence in your bio here. Robinson was the ninth of 11 children born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Virginia.
INSKEEP: Does that feel a long way from NASA to you?
ROBINSON: That's a long way from NASA. And not just feel - it is. So, you know, the history of the country, certainly in the South - tobacco was king when I was a kid. Sharecropping was a product, if you will - to use my own terms, a long-stretch product - from slavery through Jim Crow to sharecropping. And some sharecropping still goes on today. Not that all of that's bad.
INSKEEP: I guess we should explain for people. Sharecropping means you don't own the land, but you do farm it. And you have to give a large part of the crop to the person who owns the land.
ROBINSON: Yeah, that's part of it. That's the simple version. There are a lot of nuances in there - you know, who keeps the books - right? - and who alters the books. As you go through that process, there are winners, and there are losers. And it keeps the losers tied to the farm, so they can never get away.
INSKEEP: How'd you get off that farm?
ROBINSON: So I was halfway decent in math and science. I really enjoyed it. And I thought I was a top-notch football player. And for my high school and my county and my district, I probably was. So I got a scholarship - a football scholarship - to go to Virginia Union University in Richmond. And I often say, I played at football.
ROBINSON: I was good in my area. But when I got to college, the real athletes showed up. And that was a big difference. But it was really my ticket to get to college.
INSKEEP: You were just good enough to get on to your real life.
ROBINSON: That's right. Absolutely. And when I was in college - when I was at Howard, I had friends who were doing internships out at Goddard Space Flight Center right outside of D.C., and they really enjoyed it. They made it sound great. And I will say, once you walk through the gate and get started, the bug bites you fast, and the bug never stops biting.
INSKEEP: Is there anything you learned growing up in rural Virginia that is still applicable as you do this very high-tech job?
ROBINSON: So there - I would say a couple of things. You know, I learned to work with many different types of people, certainly Black and white. Of course, going through school desegregation was quite interesting. I learned a lot there. And one of the things I learned is not everyone is bad who doesn't look like me. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of good folks who don't look like me. And we have a lot of things in common. So that was one piece. The other was just playing sports. And I tried to play everything I could. I just enjoyed it. The teaming part was critically, critically important to learning life's lessons, leading and following. Both of those really helped shape me early on. And, of course, you know, a really good, strong family is important as well.
INSKEEP: What do you do now?
ROBINSON: So I worked myself out of a job. My job was to get us to launch and through commissioning. So that means it's time for me to go away.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Maybe you can just run off to an exoplanet.
ROBINSON: Yeah. So I'm certainly considering retirement. Of course, I have a lot of knowledge and experiences, life and professional. So I still plan to do some things. But it's time to go to the next phase of life.
INSKEEP: Well, Gregory Robinson, thanks for taking the time. It's been a pleasure talking with you.
ROBINSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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