2022 Federal Employee of the Year

Gregory Robinson

Oversaw the successful launch of NASA’s revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope after years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, setting the stage for spectacular discoveries about the origins of the universe.

On Christmas Day 2021, NASA ushered in a new age of astronomy with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a scientific marvel now one million miles from Earth that will uncover major insights into the origins of the universe and enable scientists to search for signs of life on distant planets outside our solar system.

The Webb telescope’s journey to the heavens, however, had been anything but easy, with the launch 11 years behind schedule and $9 billion over the original $1 billion budget because of serious technical and management failures that at one point threatened the viability of the entire endeavor.

All of that began to change dramatically in 2018, when NASA appointed Gregory Robinson to head the Webb program, resulting in a significant culture, management and leadership shift for the complex undertaking that has involved more than 10,000 people across 29 states and 14 countries. The project has included NASA scientists, engineers and employees; individuals from the European and the Canadian space agencies; and staff members from Northrop Grumman Space Systems and other corporate partners.

“Greg took the reins of NASA’s flagship mission at a crucial time when, due to lack of progress and embarrassing test failures, confidence and trust in the completion of the project was in question,” said Karen Flynn, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for management. “He displayed tremendous leadership ability to pull a large group together and get the project on track for the 2021 launch.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said Robinson gained trust within a leadership team that was badly split and beaten down. Zurbuchen said Robinson also reassured angry members of Congress that the project would get back on track, uncovered problems that could have ended up as huge mistakes, laid out a plan to move forward and created “a supportive but brutally honest culture” that prevented missteps and motivated both NASA employees and the major contractors.

“In my book, Greg is the most effective leader of a mission I have ever seen in the history of NASA,” Zurbuchen said. “He turned the team around and brought the Webb observatory to launch, to a flawless deployment and on track to making history. For me, Greg is a leader who epitomizes excellence.”

The Webb telescope, the successor to the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, is the most powerful and complex space science telescope in history. It is so large that it needed to launch folded up inside a rocket, and over the course of several weeks unfurl various components from its sunshield to its mirrors.

According to NASA, there were more than 300 potential major technical issues to track, with each single point of failure having the potential to doom the entire mission.

With the success of the launch and deployment, the telescope not only will allow astronomers to look farther out in space than ever before but will search for the first stars and galaxies of the universe and explore what heretofore had been unexplorable.

As a veteran executive with three-and-a-half decades at NASA, Robinson quickly gained the respect of team leaders and key participants, with his ability to discuss technical issues with the scientists and engineers and ask the right questions, according to Kenneth Sembach, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“Greg was a good listener and a straight shooter. He did not sugarcoat things,” Sembach said. “At the same time, he articulated an overall vision of what needed to be done and brought people along. He was the glue that got this project coalescing around the goal of exploring the universe.”

Robinson said the project was spending at a high rate—more than $1 million a day—when he walked in the door and faced serious technical and management challenges. He said he was provided with a report by an independent review board that outlined 32 major recommendations that he had to figure out how to implement while engaging the leadership team, assigning defined roles and responsibilities, and letting people do their jobs.

“A key was eliminating human errors as well as doing a great deal of advance planning,” Robinson said. “We had to make sure facilities were ready to go, testing was done and people were trained in specialized areas. We engaged the contractors at the CEO level and they played a key role to the end.”

Tom Wilson, a vice president of Northrop Grumman Space Systems, said Robinson was “consistently calm, thoughtful and exemplified competence that was based on his years of NASA experience on how to get a complex mission done.”

“He provided inspiration not just to drive program management, but in support of the team and about what we would do and accomplish together,” Wilson said.” He understood the science and had a vision of the entire undertaking, and what impact it would have on humankind. It was contagious.”

The Webb telescope’s impact will be enormous. It has 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope, will be able to look into the universe’s beginning when the very first galaxies were forming, examine the birth of stars and their planetary systems, and perhaps answer such questions as, “How do we fit in the cosmos?” and “How did the universe begin?”

On that special Christmas morning when the Webb telescope separated from the rocket and the mission went off flawlessly, Robinson said he felt that sense of history in the making and what he described as “pure jubilation.”

“I can’t express the feeling. I just said, ‘Let’s finish the job,’” Robinson recalled. “I am really enjoying the ride right now.”