Gregory Robinson’s Mastery of the Balance Between Science and Art

Audio Description

One cannot overstate the significance of the James Webb Space Telescope—but neither should one undervalue NASA’s Gregory Robinson’s masterful leadership and impact.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

Howard University did a piece on me, um, I don't know, a year or so ago, a year and a half ago, and we had a pre-meeting with my communications team and their team, and they asked the question if, if I was the first African American to lead a major program in nasa. And everyone was thinking, well, well, thinking about the sprint.

And they said, well, we we're gonna have to talk to the NASA historian and we'll get back. And I'm saying, geez, if we have to talk to the NASA historian, you kind of got your answer right.

This is Changing the Trajectory. I'm James Seth Thompson, Bernstein's Head of Diverse and Multicultural Wealth Segments. 

And I'm Maci Philitas, the Emerging Wealth Strategist here at Bernstein. Thanks for joining. I think we've all been completely awestruck by the groundbreaking images revealed by the James Webb Telescope.

They are vivid jaw droppingly clear, and they present us with an entirely new view of the universe. Today you are in for a treat. We have the honor of speaking with a living legend. The man whose leadership was the key to web success. Gregory Robinson is an engineer and the former program director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program in 2018.

Decades into his career at NASA, Gregory was asked to lead the webspace telescope program to get it over the goal line. Gregory was named to the Time 100 list of influential people in 2022, as well as being time innovator of the year. We can't wait to delve into this in so many of your other amazing feats.

Gregory, actually, I feel like I should be calling you Mr. Robinson. Um, but you've granted me permission to call you Gregory. Um, but we're really grateful for you joining us and, uh, thanks for being here. 

Well, thanks Maci. Thanks James. Uh, I'm excited to be here and honored to be here. 

So, Gregory, when I first heard your story, I immediately thought, wow, he is one of the most impactful people I've ever encountered.

And I mean, Time magazine agreed so clearly my sense was right about that. Let's talk a little bit about the beginning of your journey. You were one of 11 children to tobacco sharecroppers in Southern Virginia in the sixties.

And I've heard you say that time and location are everything. So how does this notion apply to your upbringing and the trajectory your life has taken considering you started off on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia and you became the program director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program and the Time Innovator of the Year.

Uh, may say so, uh, yes. I, I did grow up in the sixties in the early sixties and seventies, I would say. And it was in southern Virginia around Danville. And, uh, first four years of, of schooling was, uh, still segregated schools. Uh, so that kind of set some of the backdrop. Also, uh, time and location. Uh, very few people went to college from there.

And certainly if you look like me, it wasn't zero, but it was pretty low. So you would've to know a lot of people to know one person, uh, who went off to college. So I didn't have those types of role models. Uh, schools did desegregate when I went to fifth grade. I had a, a great time in that experience winning spelling bees.

So it gave me a lot of, kind of validated my own thoughts that I can compete with anyone in the world. And, and I've been doing that ever since. Uh, so times were tough. Uh, we did get a lot of, uh, good rearing from our parents and, and from those segregated, uh, school teachers. Uh, who I still say were some of the best in the world.

Um, and, and as you know, uh, back then, uh, many of them had master's and PhDs before that was required, but couldn't work in industry.

So they, uh, they did a great job preparing us, but we still didn't have those role models of going to college beyond the teachers. Uh, certainly not in my community. Uh, until I was probably a junior in high school, I knew one person that had gone off to, well, two that had gone off to college just recently.

But, uh, but otherwise didn't have the role models. And, and there was a show used to come on TV back then.

Uh, the paper chase and the setting was Harvard, uh, law school. And the teacher was just tough, tough, tough, kicking butt. And that was my image of college. So I wa I was scared straight when I went off to college, which actually helped.

Uh, so we, we take out blessings in so many different ways. So it helped me study extremely hard. I enjoyed a little partying, but it was secondary because I was afraid of, of that Harvard, uh, law school environment and, and flunking out. Uh, so that's kind of the backdrop. When I got to high school, I took the advanced classes to the dismay of, of my counselors.

Uh, back then we had academic, vocational general. And generally we were steered towards vocational and, um, general and not academic. When I say we, I mean the African American students, but I always resisted because I, I knew I was smart. I'm not sure how I knew it, but I, I just knew it and I did wanna go to college one day, so I wanted to be prepared.

Had no idea what that meant, how I would get there. So I got a call, at least my, my high school football coach got a call one day from the coach at Virginia Union University, which is in Richmond, Virginia. He offered me a scholar. And that was my, uh, my journey to college. I did a, uh, what was pretty common back then was called a dual degree program.

Three, two. So I did, uh, three years at union. I transferred to Howard after three years. Options were Howard and Michigan. And I finished up, get a degree from both schools. I got a math degree from Virginia Union and, uh, engineering degree from, from Howard. So that's kind of their early years, uh, getting through school and, and getting through.

Quick question for you. What do you remember most about that time, specifically being in the segregated schools until the fifth grade, and like how did that shape you along your educational journey to the point where, you know, you got your engineering degree and your master's degree?

So as adults, you look back and you can see certain things. As a kid, your world is your world, what you see around you, and you don't have any other experiences to alter that. Uh, so as a kid, all of that was just normal and natural, right? A again, had excellent teachers.

So I didn't have any issues when schools were desegregated because I was prepared, always knew I wanted to do something great, even though I didn't have those role models.

I mean, for me at the time Great was just going in college. It didn't mean anything else. And I enjoyed sports. Uh, so that that was a really good, uh, teacher and distraction I might say. And one thing about sports, I say this a lot, uh, I think sports is the, the least divisive area in all of our society.

You grew up playing sports with people from all walks of life. Don't look like you. You hang out together and you talk and you carry on. Uh, you don't know what's being said back at the house, but, but at least you're having a great time together. So that actually helps prepare you for, uh, for dealing with, uh, different types of people.

Throughout your life. Now there are some good sides to that and some, some downsides, right? You can, you can build some pretty, uh, biased views, uh, negative, biased views. I might say, in my case, it, it was predominantly positive. It wasn't, uh, smooth sailing. So looking back I see a lot of the negatives.

At the time, I didn't have anything to compare it to, so it was just, and, you know, as, as people of color, we know the importance of representation.

You know, we, we hear so many instances of stories of the need for many communities of color to see themselves and others, but definitely find a way to have.

The vision, find a way to have the inspiration to step out and maybe do something that you haven't been interested in or introduced to, you know, during your upbringing.

So I think your journey definitely illustrates how that actually shows up every day.

I make the comment sometimes that Virginia Union and Howard actually, that those were the launching points for awareness of being a black man in the world. Yeah. I've always been black, so I grew up black, but that was a, a global awareness of what that really meant.

What it didn't mean, and I still benefit from that today. 

So you attended and graduated from Virginia Union and Howard, and then from there you went on to what became a career at NASA that spanned for about 33 years. And during your tenure at NASA, you became the director of the $10 billion.

Web telescope program and you oversaw the program that involved over 20,000 people, which is basically, you know, larger than most college campuses in the size of some cities.

So you're accredited with, you know, being the turnaround guy, um, which can be a very. Challenging assignment one that I'm sure a number of our listeners are familiar with. So what were some of the initial steps you took to get the program on target and how did you keep the faith and keep moving forward despite the incredible hurdles and setbacks?

Uh, good question. So when I was asked to take over web, um, in early 2018, there were a lot of, uh, what I call big issues. Incredibly smart, incredibly resilient team. You won't find a. Team from that standpoint, probably in the world. So I was never worried about them figuring out technical issues and getting them done.

Even though we had challenges and we had hiccups, I think we really needed a, a, a culture change. And the, the culture changes. One was just alignment. Alignment from the technician on the floor, turning the wrench up through me, through the NASA administrator, office management and budget at the White House and Congress.

Cause all, we're part of this big team. And when I talk about. I used them, uh, interchangeably. It was everybody in that chain. The White House was screaming, Congress was screaming. NASA administrator was screaming, you know, screams go way downhill, right? So, um, had to get everyone aligned. What are we really trying to accomplish?

How do we get there and how do we communicate with each other? And that made a huge difference. I still have people who won the, um, the different congressional committees. Powerful staffers still come to me today and, and talk about the importance of that alignment.

So as part of that, one of the things I did was I, I started, uh, quarterly meetings, uh, with OMB and quarterly meetings with the four congressional, uh, committees, house and uh, Senate authorization.

And then house and center appropriations and these meetings are always separate. We talk efficiency. They never meet together. So, so I always had to do four per quarter, generally within the same week or sometimes the same couple of days. Uh, that made a huge difference.

So one of the, the big challenges was down in there and the people that worked for me, I needed to know certain information.

Uh, one, so I. Give direction if necessary to, uh, make of course corrections and two, to communicate, uh, to the right people appropriately and also to make changes in, in our performance. So how we're doing it was interesting. Some people wouldn't give me certain information. The, that's how the culture was for so many years.

Uh, so the leadership below. It created this, this long culture, uh, insular culture. And I knew that was not gonna work. Uh, so I had some, some decisions to make, you know, do I fire everybody? You know, been joking with everybody or do I use my charm? I don't have much of that to try to change things. And, and it's a delicate balance between science and art, right?

You can learn a lot of this stuff. And business school and training programs. But there's an art to it. Uh, you have to apply for yourself based on who you are. So I, I use different methods, uh, to, to try to open up that insular culture over time. It worked. And lastly, try to create a culture and of openness, meaning, um, it's okay to ask for help, but beyond your, your core team.

One old gentleman, he used to say, You're not the only one in the meeting who knows everything. There are other people here who know everything too, right? So, um, oftentimes people outside the organization can bring you some technical help. Uh, but again, that insular thinking was no one could help us because we're the smartest in the world.

So, also brought in, uh, Additional resources to help investigate something, to help disposition. The technical issue, and again, I have a long, long list, I can go on for days, but those were, those were the biggest, uh, really changing the culture. I said it last, but I'll give you another last one that, that was directly, uh, uh, with progress and we would have a, an anomaly or a failure.

One of the things I tried to instill in the team is you don't have. Create a science project for every issue. You've heard the term science project and, and that means something in this business. Uh, you can really get elaborate in your investigation. Some things, you know what failed. You fix it, you replace it, and you keep running.

You don't need a science experiment. That took a while as well. Again, it's a long culture. So all of those things I think help in addition to, uh, half dozen or dozen. That's super helpful and I just wanna make sure I, I captured that.

And to recap, so alignment is probably, you know, the first thing, creating a culture of honesty and transparency to dissolve trust, determine the balance between the science and the art to adjust culture and create a culture of openness.

Is that, does that kind of Yes. Uh, you captured it. 

Awesome. And so thinking about that, through transforming this culture, you brought over the finish line, the web telescope, which is 100 times more powerful than its precursor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Can you tell us. And explain, um, the significance of this achievement and what it might mean for not only the way we understand the universe, so lay people like me, but also how it impact or transformed the way you think about the universe.

Uh, certainly Hubble, um, was launched more than 30 years ago of Quest. We had to do multiple service admissions when we stay at the space shuttle, and it's still working today and Hub. Was the big dog for 30 plus years and, and so many new discoveries, and we've been a hundred times more powerful. And that means a lot of things.

Uh, we can see further back in the universe, you know, a few hundred million years after Big Bang. That still blows my mind. Uh, we, we can look at details of exoplanets to see if they're potentially habitable. And these are planets and other galaxies.

Close and far, but light years. Uh, and we can look at a lot of stuff within our own solar system, other planet, air bodies like Jupiter and Mars and Saturn and so on.

So very, very powerful. And the time it takes to do some of this stuff is so much quicker than Hubble sometimes, uh, few hours instead of days, or. Multiple hours instead of weeks, uh, that much faster and that much clearer. We always ask the question, uh, certainly, um, astronomers, astrophysicists, and even common folks like myself, how do we get here?

What's our place in the universe? How does this earth work relative to the rest of the universe? And the other question we ask all the time, probably every person in humanity's time are we. And that's a big one. And certainly web helps us, uh, particularly looking at exoplanets helps us, uh, maybe to unlock some of those secrets and some of the secrets of the universe forming and, and how place in it.

So it's a really big deal. This is a, a, a global, uh, say it's the world's telescope. It's not, it's not just NASAs, it's not just the. Uh, European Space Agency, um, was a major partner, uh, the Canadian Space Agency. And that's many, many countries, uh, 14 countries, but ISA is bigger than 14 countries, but 14 countries and Europe participated in certainly Canada, 29 states in the us.

Uh, so it, it's, it's really the world's telescope. And also if we want to continue to be leaders in the world and astrophysics and the US is, everyone is nipping at us all the time. That's extremely important as. When we think about impacting legacy, and again, you know, through your storytelling, we know and recognize that there were many capable students of color when you were growing up and of your day and doing your tenure, who weren't afforded the same opportunities you were.

But even when we think about NASA and just society in general, there's been progress, but you are a black man among the agencies, top level positions, which is still uncommon in many places. What does it mean to you to be able to create so much inspiration literally around the globe, and what can we all do to inspire the next generation of Greg Robinsons?

I think it's critically important. Uh, you heard me say, um, growing up I didn't have these role models around me, and today without digital virtual world, kids can see me. From anywhere from Danville, where I'm from, from Appalachia, from Queens, New York. You pick your place, you can find me from any country, um, in, in the world.

And it's important for the reason you just stated just historically until today, uh, still very few, uh, African Americans, I would say people of color in general. In these type roles, how university did a piece of me, um, I don't know, a year or so ago, a year and a half ago, and we had a pre-meeting with my communications team and their team, and they asked the question if, if I was the first African American to lead a major program in nasa and everyone was thinking, well, I was thinking about this spring sprint, and they said, well, we we're gonna have to talk to the NASA historian and we'll get back to you.

And I'm saying, geez, if we have to talk to the NASA history, You kind of got your answer right, and it's, it's almost like before 2008, if you had asked someone who's never been a black president and they said, well, let me think about this thing. Let's go to the, to the National Archives or the Library of Congress, and let's see if, if there's been easy answer.

Uh, unfortunately that's the case at that. The answer is easy and the answer is, Uh, so one of the things I talk about a lot, uh, certainly internal to NASA and everywhere I go in five years, 10 years, my, uh, my prayer is that there would be many Greg Robinson's where, you know, I, I play with this sometimes where just any old joker looking like me, because the starting point is, Uh, certainly if you're in naso and, and you know, you pick the, the university or the, or the company, if you're already there, you're already pretty smart.

So I always say smarts is a starting point and everything goes from there. So I never have to question that part. So any, any person, I'm not special, you know, I'm not smarter than anyone else that that's in this business, but you need opportunity. So hopefully this, this will be, uh, one of the catalysts and certainly the inspiration for others to, to pursue.

That's a big piece as well. 

You say that you're not special, but I, I think, you know, you certainly are. And when we were preparing for this conversation, you brought up the, the concept of the other mother that you experienced. And I, I do think that also played a role in just the, the titans we've seen from your generation and, and the impact they've had on our society and part of.

You know, could be argued as because of your experience in segregated primary schools and in a, in a segregated environment. So would you mind sharing your wisdom and, and touching on the impact our villages had and, and these communities had on plussing around our children and the impact that has had on your life and our society, and then what can we do to recapture that ethos today?

So during segregation, The community was part of your family, so to say. So the community helped raise you someone next door, someone down the road, or someone on the next, next block, and certainly in the school. And the, the schools were entrusted. To help raise you to discipline you as necessary. Back then, we certainly didn't have to worry about things we had to worry about.

After schools were desegregated, there were always concerns of certain teachers not doing the right thing by, by kids when you have the authority to discipline. But before that, it was, it was just normal. And so the teachers really helped. Keep us in line, and some of us needed that. Of course, our parents knew about it.

And sometimes when we get a choice, do you want me to tell your parents or you want to take the little spanking right now? Please don't tell my parents you can. You can, you can do it to me four or five times. Um, because it would've been worse because they expect you to, uh, not act crazy when you went off to school.

Uh, so that was a big piece, I would say. Uh, and many of those teachings stay with you over the years. It doesn't keep us perfect, but it stays with us. One of the things often talk about is, you know, my, my generation, it's the last generation that's connected to the civil rights movement. So a lot of things coming out of that too.

Um, we knew about, we learned. And we tried to take forward, unfortunately, some of the, some of the things that, that we learned growing up, some of the grit working hard. No matter what you're gonna make it. Some of those things we didn't pass on. Uh, I, I believe to our kids because we wanted their lives to be better in certain ways than ours were.

Uh, so, you know, how much do you pass on? How much do you protect from, and sometimes we don't, we don't pass on enough. Uh, so I, I, I think going forward it's important for us to reinstitute some of. Always of teaching. I think your community can be as small or as broad as you want it to be as you make it. I think the community does help.

I don't think we need the, all of the types of punishment we had back then because I, there's so many, uh, negatives to that as well, and historical negatives, but still certain strong teachings now. A lot of that still goes on today, so I'm not, not saying it that way. Now, I will say, with all that said, there are a lot of young folks.

Out here doing amazing things. And I mean, if you look at just, um, young people starting companies and running companies, not all of 'em are Boeings or Lockheeds. Uh, but they're doing it and they're doing it at young ages and of course their digital world helps that a lot, gives them, um, More flexibility to do that.

You don't need these big budgets to get started. So I'm, I'm still encouraged, uh, that the next generation is gonna be okay, and certainly seeing people like me will give them more inspiration, but a lot of 'em are doing it already. And so I, I'm, I'm really encouraged. You 

know, you've famously and notably have shared that you've worked yourself out of a job.

When you think about the work you've done with with Web, but I have to believe that you're still one of the busiest people. Those in your inner circle know. You know, as we start to wrap up here, Talk to us a little bit about what is your why and the who and what you do and what to be when you grow up?

That's a, that's a good question, and that one is not always easy to answer. I, I have so many different answers depending on which day ask me. The one thing is, is, uh, I really hope that, uh, my legacy on web will. We'll start new legacies for youngsters and, and not so young, uh, knowing that, uh, it can happen.

There are possibilities. And when I was in my early career, people like, um, Trey Gregory, he's an astronaut. And certainly I worked a lot with Charlie Bolden. Astronaut and Marine Corps General and, and many others like that. Uh, I can go on with names and, and many people outside of NASA and outside of, uh, aerospace, uh, that I looked up to from afar and sometimes up close.

Uh, so I'm hoping that I, I have the same things when I go to major gatherings and people come up to me, people I don't even remember and said, you said, Things to me, you know, 10 years ago and it made a difference, and now I'm doing this, this, and this because, and when I used to look at Fred Gregory and Charlie Bolden when I was early in my career.

I mean, these were giants, I mean really giants, but they looked like giants to me. I said, geez, if I can just do a small percentage of what they've done or listen to them get a few nuggets, I think I'm gonna be okay. So I, I think I've dropped a few nuggets along the way and, and I'm getting that feedback from people.

My big desire going forward, one, is to continue to help organizations. Be high performers. That's, uh, that's really important to me. And also to grow the, not just the pipeline of African Americans and other people of color into the scientists and, and aerospace, uh, business, but at the end of that pipeline to end up in, in, uh, jobs like I, like I had on web and I've had many other great jobs I never dreamed of, uh, in nasa.

So I used to say 10 years ago, if my career ended today, I've had a great career. I'm pretty happy and I had three fantastic positions after that. That's really what I'm after is, is helping inspire and grow, uh, future generat. 

Yeah, great. Really appreciate that. You know, we're not in the NASA and space arena, you know, but similarly, we get to a chance to either talk to or meet with amazing people who want to have significant impact, who have had their own individual successes.

And what we do see a lot is, you know, people kind of recreating themselves, retiring one thing and starting another. And I feel like when people do that, it's just really energizing it. Reinvigorates the scientists or the entrepreneur or the social impact specialists in you? We know there's a Gregory Robinson part, whatever, coming very soon.

Yes. And we, and we look forward to supporting you in that.

I might say, um, you know, the highest percentage of people working on web technical people. Uh, but we had many other disciplines that were critical to the success. I mean, we had communication people. Really critical and, and I still do back flips over, over a lot of them, uh, making this, uh, possible people in human resources, uh, people in finance and contracts and the list goes on and on, people doing logistics and travel.

And so all of these people made this possible, not just the scientists and engineers and technicians. 

That's such great insight because when you think about something like web, you think of the more technical. But there's a whole team of people behind that to make that happen from other facets too. So, Gregory, how can we and our listeners support you and, and your future endeavors?

What would you say you would want our listeners to do as a result of listening to today's episode?

One of the things, um, It is to, to speak up. And there's so many avenues to that. In my early career, uh, sitting in meetings at the Goddess Space Flight Center, all males, all white, and there were times the one female in the room, generally white as well.

And you know, sometimes sitting around before the meeting starts and you're talking and how was your weekend? And you're telling jokes and some of these guys. Tell sexist jokes and 30 years ago this was common, not uncommon. And, and, and the poor woman is sitting there, you know, how can she really contribute to the meeting After hearing all these jokes, and some people laugh, some people don't say anything.

And how do you sit there and allow that to happen knowing that this woman cannot be her fullest? In this meeting. And then that's the larger environment. And certainly you look around and no one is saying anything, and you got people laughing. And then I'm saying, geez, I'm wondering what they say about me when I'm not here right now.

Of course they could say it when I'm there too. Like they were doing this woman. Uh, I think it's, it's critically important for people to. To speak up and, and that's just one area, and certainly it's speak up, uh, around, uh, diversity and inclusion. And I don't mean a, a diversity and inclusion program.

Programs are great, but I always call it a coaching moment. You have to do it, uh, at the time. The other area of speaking up is sometimes they're technical, programmatic challenges. I've had this discussion with some old colleagues. Two different ones the past few weeks and some this week where they just don't agree with the way forward on a particular area.

And they're, they're quite adamant about it, but they get in with their big boss and you know, the big, you know, they have a discussion Big Boss says, so we all, all in agreement. Right? And it's kind of yes and really shouldn't be. And certainly in the history of nasa, if you're familiar with the challenger program.

That was a big deal with the Columbia program. That was a big deal. And just in life, you, if you want people to feel comfortable in a room, someone has to say, this is not acceptable. And make it clear at the time. Uh, so, uh, whatever that, that walk of life is, whatever that environment is, don't be afraid to speak up.

Uh, you can be graceful. You can be professional, uh, and you should be, but you have to, uh, you really have to speak up to create the proper. Hmm. 

That's, that's such great advice and it reminds me of something my great-grandfather used to say, and that is if both of us agree on everything, one of us is unnecessary.

Absolutely. Well, Gregory, thank you for joining us on the show today.

Uh, this has been amazing. Thanks to you and James, you actually helped me think about some things that I don't normally think about in certain ways. I, I will give you credit when I use them again, so I do appreciate that. 

Thank you. I hope you enjoyed today's.

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