NASA engineer honored for overseeing Webb Telescope launch – PBS NewsHour

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The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or Sammies, are given out each year to celebrate our nation’s public servants. NASA’s Greg Robinson received the flagship award of Federal Employee of the Year for his work managing the construction and implementation of the James Webb Space Telescope. Robinson joined Judy Woodruff before this week’s ceremony to talk about his journey to stardom.
Judy Woodruff:
Tuesday night saw a rare celebration of our nation’s public servants.
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or Sammies, are given out each year to a wide array of government workers across many agencies. This year’s winners come from all corners of government, from an education specialist, to the State Department team that coordinated the largest resettlement of refugees in modern U.S. history.
NASA’s Greg Robinson Walked home with a flagship award, Federal Employee of the Year, for his role managing the construction and implementation of the Webb Telescope, the most advanced in space now sending back those spectacular images of our solar system and beyond.
I sat down with him right before the ceremony to talk about his work.
Gregory Robinson, welcome to the “NewsHour.” Congratulations.
GREGORY ROBINSON, Former Director, James Webb Space Telescope Program:
Thanks for having me. I’m honored to be here.
So, what did you think when you found out that you are the Federal Employee of the Year?
It’s humbling, I must say.
And when I look at all of the stories of other finalists, there’s amazing work going on across government, some surprising, some not, but just a lot of great work.
So, you were with the federal government. You have now retired, but you were with the government for decades.
Take us back to 2018. There you were at NASA. You were deputy associate administrator for programs. You were overseeing performance, I ran, of over 100 programs. And then your boss came to you and said, we want you to run the Webb Telescope program.
What did you think?
Well, I tried to run as well, but he wouldn’t let me go.
I really enjoyed the job I was doing. I was having fun with it. I thought I was making a difference. I think I was. So I really loved what I was doing. So I did not want to take the Webb job. So I declined a couple of times.
And over, I don’t know, two or three weeks, he finally convinced me to take it and…
They doubled your salary. I mean, what…
Why did they — why did you…
It’s still government. We just talked about that.
No, just made a convincing case on how important Webb is to NASA and really to the world.
And we really needed to get it over the goal line. So, after reluctance and a lot of time talking with my wife and a few mentors, I agreed to take it on.
The program was described at that time — and this was four years ago — as being — as having a lot of problems, being off-track, delays, really shot through with problems, in a way.
What did you do, Greg Robinson, to turn that around?
So, for these major projects, we call them flagship missions, they are very bold. I mean, we’re doing things that have never been done before.
Some of the things I did, one was making sure everyone was aligned, from the lowest person the team all the way up through NASA headquarters, through the administrator, and our stakeholders in OMB and Congress, just making sure everyone was looking at things the right way, asking the right questions, and responding appropriately.
That was one piece. The other one was allowing fresh eyes to come in. There are other smart people within and outside the agency who were not working on Webb. And, sometimes, having those people come in and help you out a little bit, it’s important. And we got some benefit out of that as well.
You are very aware, I know, that federal employees are often invisible. They have, frankly, not been given a lot of credit over the years.
You have heard politicians talk about bureaucrats, lazy, just taking up space, wasting taxpayer dollars. What should the public know about the people you worked with at NASA when you were there?
You heard the saying in NASA all the time that it’s all about the mission. And it really is.
People get up in the morning, and their job is to get that thing done. And that’s how they operate. And even though we went through challenges, no one ever, ever tucked their tail and ran. They met every challenge, got it done, so, an amazing work force.
I think it goes without saying, Greg Robinson, that you were one of the very few Black men working at a high level at NASA, or — and you could say that across the federal government.
To what extent has race been an issue for you in your career?
There are times that I have felt resistance to advancement, and certainly to lead certain — different parts of the organization, what I call the major parts, and certainly major flight programs or flight projects.
I had some of that and — over the years. And — but I can honestly say, I believe mine has been a lot less than others, not to make it better, because it’s still not a good thing. And I was doing a program with Howard University, one of my alma maters, a year, a year-and-a-half ago, and the question came up, are you the first African American to lead a major program in NASA?
And I had my comms team with me. And no one can answer the question. When you can’t answer that question, and I have been around NASA 33 years, I think you got the answer, right? So, I think that’s something we really need to work on. I shouldn’t be the first one. Hopefully — and I have had this conversation with others — in five years, Greg Robinson will just be a common name leading programs around NASA.
Your parents were sharecropper, tobacco sharecroppers in Southern Virginia.
You’re one of, what, 11 children. Your parents are no longer alive. What do you think they would be saying if they were here today about you?
They would say, what the hell is this boy doing up there?
That’s what they would say.
They would be proud of me, no doubt about it. We worked hard coming up. Certainly, they worked extremely hard to try to get us educated, just to try to raise us. Times were tough.
I started out in segregated Virginia, Southern Virginia in particular, through grade four. And segregation has its own — even after it’s desegregated, its own challenges as far as opportunity and exposure and things like that. So, they would be quite proud of where I have ended up.
There’s a good reason for that. And we want to add our congratulations.
Federal Employee of the Year, Partnership for Public Service, Greg Robinson, thank you very much.
Thank you so much.
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Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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