NASA's Barry Robinson: Living His Dream
by John C. Stennis Space CenterMore articles in People
HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss. He was a fan of the Apollo program. He watched the early launches on a black-and-white television in a Louisiana classroom. The images of men walking on the Moon mixed well with images from the science fiction novels he read. He dreamed often of space. Barry Robinson never doubted that one day he would work for NASA. He just never imagined it would be in Mississippi.
"I talked with a lot of people about careers in engineering and in aerospace while I was in school," said Robinson, a mechanical engineering major at Southern University and A&M College, Baton Rouge. "My plan was to take a job with an industry contractor and after a few years migrate to a position with NASA."
In 1988, near the end of his senior year at A&M, Robinson was invited to interview with the aerospace industry contractor. The series of interviews led him to NASA's Stennis Space Center. "I was shocked to learn there was a NASA facility in Mississippi," Robinson said. "Although I had seen the signs along Interstate 10, it never registered with me that this was really a NASA center. I took one look at the Space Shuttle Main Engine and accepted the job on the spot."
Phase one of his plan was under way.
Robinson joined the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International at Stennis - a primary contractor for NASA responsible for the testing program of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) - as a test operations engineer.
"When they told me I would be responsible for knowing everything there was to know about these facilities and the SSME, I thought to myself, 'Who are they kidding?'" Robinson said. "If the engine itself weren't intimidating enough for a new engineer, I was overwhelmed with a sense of personal responsibility for making sure it was safe for flight into space. I was living out a dream. I didn't want to mess this up."
Fortunately, Robinson said, Rocketdyne didn't leave him on his own to figure things out. His training was placed in the hands of seasoned engineers. "There was probably a good 20- to 25-year difference in the ages of the guys on the job and the newest of the new hires." Robinson said. "I had a true sense of being mentored. These guys were handing down their knowledge and their experience. They wanted us to know what they had learned. Suddenly, I understood that my real responsibility was to learn as much as I could. With that, I got my feet under me. I knew I could do this. I had always been a good student."
Robinson set out to learn every aspect of test operations. "I was hungry for knowledge and for experience," Robinson said. "I wanted to know what happened before, during and after an engine got to Stennis. It was important for me to know the process."
Knowledge of the process led Robinson to become one of the first black test conductors at Stennis and later among even fewer engine systems engineers with "test conductor" as a part of their resume.
Phase two of his plan unfolded in 1994. He joined NASA as an aerospace technician in mechanical experimental equipment.
"When you think of Barry Robinson, you think of a test guy," said NASA's Robert Lightfoot, director of the Propulsion Test Directorate (PTD) at Stennis. "Barry has a real understanding of the value of a disciplined approach to running a test facility. That understanding is tempered with the common sense required to get the project smoothly to test."
Lightfoot said a good example of the assets Robinson brings to the table can be seen in his work on the MC-1 project, formerly known as the Low Cost Technologies Fastrac Engine Program. "The project was struggling when Barry was moved into the program," Lightfoot said. "It was behind schedule and suffering from technical issues. The team was working as hard as they possibly could but lacked the focus that an experienced test guy can give. We put Barry out there, and the team jelled almost instantly."
The team was honored with the Interorganizational Group Award in 1999 and a Group Achievement Award in August 2000. The program received the NASA Turning Goals Into Reality Award for the Fastrac Engine Product Development Team in September that same year.
Robinson's success with the MC-1 project at Stennis led him to work nearly a year in the Stennis Project Office at the Rocket-dyne facilities in Santa Susana, Calif., when the program moved into what became its final testing stages. Here, he served as the test operations consultant.
Robinson recently served as chair of the Operational Readiness Inspection Commit-tee for return of the A-1 test stand to SSME testing. He serves as co-chair of the Stennis Training and Certification Board and has assisted in rewriting the PTD operational instructions, and in defining and implementing the Operations Division training plan.
Now, Robinson says he is beginning to see himself as one of those "old" guys whose job is to pass down knowledge. As chief of the Mechanical Test Operations Branch in the Operations Division of the Propulsion Test Directorate, he mentors and implements operational policies and processes for component and rocket engine testing.
"I am responsible for overseeing 16 mechanical engineers as they are moved around to the various test facilities for responsibilities including conducting hot-fire tests," said Robinson. "It is my job to see that they comply with site standards and directorate objectives. I want to make sure they get the training and educational opportunities needed to improve their job performances. It is my job to give back what I have been given."