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Howard Alumnus Gregory Robinson at Charter Day: From Rural Virginia to Space Exploration

Gregory Robinson-howard university convocation

WASHINGTON – Gregory L. Robinson (CEA ’83), Howard alumnus and the senior NASA official widely praised for steering the successful launch of James Webb Telescope, addressed Howard University as the 156th Charter Day Convocation orator.

Each year, the founding of Howard University is celebrated through the annual Charter Day Convocation and Charter Day Dinner on Saturday. The traditional black-tie gala recognizes honorees for their contributions to Howard and the wider national and international communities. In his remarks, Robinson analogized Howard University’s founding in 1867 to “the first leg of a long relay race.”

 “There was no running start,” Robinson said, referring to Howard’s early student body of newly freed slaves. “Those 150,000 people educated by Howard in the first five years had no running start. The people they were trying to catch up with were already gone because they had a running start for many, many years.”

Gregory L. Robinson

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Robinson’s storied career at NASA includes service as deputy associate administrator for programs of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He served as John Glenn Research Center’s deputy director. Robinson is best known for the successful launch of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

At convocation, Robinson spoke about his reluctance to take the reins of the massive program, which he said was “in pretty bad shape,” even facing possible termination. Initially, Robinson said he turned down the job but relented after consultation and encouragement from his wife, Cynthia.

Since its launch, Robinson said the James Webb Telescope has helped scientists “see through the darkness and cloud of space,” by bringing greater insight into the mysteries of Jupiter’s moons, the weather and seasonal activity on Mars, Neptune’s rings, and galaxies many light years away. The telescope even peeks into the elements of distant exoplanets around distant stars to determine their habitability.  

Robinson called the James Webb telescope “the greatest telescope in the history of mankind” and “mankind’s greatest discoverer in our universe.” He marveled at his contributions to space exploration given his own humble roots in southern Virginia, in a period dominated by sharecropping, dirt roads, and segregated schools.

 “It’s been a significant journey to get here, but when I think about and reflect, it pales in comparison to 1867,” he said.