JOHN R. CRNE The (Danville) Register & Bee
As program director of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Pittsylvania County, native Gregory L. Robinson gets to examine the history of the universe.
Robinson, a 1978 graduate of Dan River High School, has been program director for the $10 billion project for four years. It is the largest and most powerful space science observatory in history, according to NASA.
An astrophysics mission that is a follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb Telescope is 100 times more powerful and will allow a 13.5 billion-year look back in cosmic time to see galaxies being formed.
“It will allow us to characterize exoplanets to better understand the habitability of those planets,” Robinson said via an audio interview Thursday morning.
Exoplanets are planets outside the solar system that orbit stars other than the sun.
Scientists will use the Webb Telescope to determine the origin and evolution of planets and other bodies in the solar system and compare them to exoplanets, according to NASA.
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“There are thousands of exoplanets in nearby galaxies,” Robinson said.
The Webb telescope also enables NASA to better characterize the planets in the solar system, including Mars, by allowing a more detailed look at them.
Growing up in the area, Robinson never dreamed he would one day work for NASA.
“Some people have a grand plan from kindergarten through life,” he said. “I had none of that when I was a youngster.”
But he had a knack for math and science, taking advanced math classes in high school.
Growing up Black in Pittsylvania County, Robinson attended a segregated Southside Elementary School through fourth grade. His parents were tobacco sharecroppers.
He later attended Mount Hermon and Glenwood elementary schools, and Blairs Junior High School before entering Dan River High School in the ninth grade.
He went on to earn a dual degree in math and electrical engineering, studying at Virginia Union University in Richmond and Howard University in Washington, DC
In spite of the challenges posed by segregation during Robinson’s childhood, “I still say those were the best school years of my life,” he said. It helped that he had quality teachers who nourished students’ minds.
“We had really tough teachers who were incredibly smart and great teachers,” he said. “They brought that wealth of knowledge to the classroom. They also brought a wealth of discipline.”
Robinson also earned a master’s of business administration degree in 1993 from Averett College (now Averett University) and attended Harvard University’s Senior Executive Fellows Program at the Kennedy School of Government.
After a stint at AT&T, Robinson entered the space industry in 1988 and has worked full-time for NASA since 1989. He worked in a variety of leadership positions for NASA before leading the Webb project, including NASA-level deputy chief engineer and deputy center director at the John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Webb had been in development for more than 20 years and was launched Christmas Day and in early January. It was almost canceled in 2010 and 2011, Robinson said.
“They were going through some major technical, programmatic problems,” he said. “A lot of the new technology was still immature.”
The Webb Telescope is NASA’s largest and most powerful space science telescope ever built, according to NASA. The plan is for the telescope to travel to an orbit about a million miles away from Earth to undergo six months of commissioning in space.
“Astronomers worldwide will then be able to conduct scientific observations to broaden our understanding of the universe,” NASA states. “Webb will also complement the science achieved by other NASA missions.”
The telescope is an international project among NASA and its partners including the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Thousands of engineers and hundreds of scientists — along with more than 300 universities, organizations and companies from 29 states and 14 countries — worked to develop Webb, according to NASA.
A typical day for Robinson is a lot less hectic than it was before the launch of Webb. He spends a lot of time at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where the observatory is being operated. He also spends time on the phone with members of the Webb team and keeps NASA administration informed of the project.
He recently received the Roy L. Clay Sr. Technology Pinnacle Award, which recognizes African Americans across the country who are tech pioneers.
Known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” Clay is most known for developing new software for Hewlett-Packard computers and paving the way for other African Americans in the tech industry.
“The software we see in ‘Hidden Figures,’ they were using his programming,” said Clay, referring to the 2016 movie about a team of Black women who played a large role at NASA during its space program’s early years. “He’s done many other things in pioneering the computer industry in Silicon Valley and the whole Bay Area.”
Robinson’s endeavors seem to have inspired his daughters. Two of them have science-related careers, while the third works in business, he said.
Robinson lives in Manassas with his wife, Cynthia Robinson.