For Dr. Kimberly Robinson, leaving NASA to become director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville was in the stars.
“The more I heard about this job, the more I felt drawn to it and the more I felt that it was going to be a great fit,” she says. “It just became clearer and clearer to me that it was my next step. It might have been earlier than I had planned, but the more I found out about it the more I felt like this is where God is taking me.”
Robinson left NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville in February to travel a few miles down I-565 to the Space & Rocket Center — a small trip for her but one giant leap of faith after an illustrious career track with the space agency.
“I had been part of my NASA family for 30 years, so I had never imagined leaving NASA except for retiring,” says the new executive director and CEO. Leaving early was a gut wrenching decision.
It’s clear when talking to the personable Robinson that she loves a challenge, and the Space Center has been one since early 2020 due to the worldwide pandemic. U.S. Space Camp, the center’s flagship program and chief moneymaker that started in 1982, was in a tailspin. Museum officials closed the whole attraction for several weeks and announced the possibility of a permanent shutdown.
In July 2020, the center launched a heartfelt Go Fund Me appeal.
“We have already borrowed our limit with the bank and structured plans to lay off 90% of our valued employees — our family,” read the “Save Space Camp” appeal. Layoffs followed.
Fundraising took off like a rocket. More than 8,000 people from 50 states and 36 countries gave more than $1.5 million in a week.
Challenges continue, but Robinson seems to have the perfect training.
The Birmingham native attended Shades Valley High School in Homewood. Her father worked at Hayes Aircraft and helped found Ruffner Valley Baptist Church.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in mechanical engineering, Robinson moved to Huntsville in 1989 to accept a job with NASA in Huntsville’s historic propulsion laboratory to “design anything that needed designing.”
She earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in engineering management and systems engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She met her husband at NASA. They have three children and live in Huntsville.
Robinson’s various jobs included working on the International Space Station’s material science and life sciences gloveboxes, analyzing wear patterns on space shuttle bearings and — her“most fun” one — training astronauts.
“You would assure the simulators were built, that all the training materials were prepared, and you would train with the astronauts to make sure we had everything down, that they were fully prepared as far as the procedures were written correctly,” Robinson says.
While at Marshall, Robinson was a “utility player” who “could be dropped into bad situations and turn them around.
“You look back on it and that was perfect training for getting dropped into a COVID recovery,” she says.
While demand to attend Space Camp is back, the program is still operating at half capacity. “Save Space Camp” donations only “kept the lights on,” Robinson says. “We are still millions and millions of dollars behind where we need to be.”
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an agency of the state of Alabama that operates on its own earned income but does receive some support from the Alabama Legislature to fund education programs for Alabama students and teachers. The U.S. Space & Rocket Education Foundation is a separate nonprofit organization that raises money to restore and develop the center’s artifacts and exhibits and for its education programs.
Center attendance set a record in 2019 with more than 1 million visitors from 82 countries. In 2020, they saw 302,000 visitors. After years of challenging jobs at NASA, Robinson had just accepted her highest-profile position yet. Five months before she took the Space Center job, she joined the prestigious NASA headquarters staff based in Washington, D.C., working remotely from Huntsville.
She would assess science objectives and research experiments from all over the world and match them “with what capabilities need to be developed and what capacity we had on all the different vehicles,” she says. That would determine “what was going to be accomplished on the lunar surface for the next decade or so.”
Robinson had to decide whether to leave a venerable government agency at the pinnacle of her career to take over a struggling tourist attraction — albeit the most popular one in Alabama year after year. Robinson is only the second center director to come from NASA since the attraction was founded as the Alabama Space & Rocket Center in 1970.
As a female engineer, Robinson hopes to inspire others as they did for her. As a high school senior, she received an award from the Society of Women Engineers, presented by a blue-suited astronaut. Robinson asked how to become one. Become an engineer, work for NASA and apply, she heard.
“I said, ‘That is my new life plan,’” she recalls with a laugh.
A self-described nerd who used to do her older brother’s homework, Robinson was so fascinated by the space program that she wrote her fifth-grade term paper on rocket legend Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Less than perfect eyesight derailed her from the astronaut track.
“They just seemed like almost perfect humans and you just wanted to be one of them. But I was never perfect,” she says. Although she never did blast off, she sees her new job as the next best thing. “Better, in some ways,” she adds with characteristic enthusiasm.
Not surprisingly, Robinson is taking on her new mission with a checklist worthy of a mission specialist.
Goal one: Manage the budget conservatively.
Goal two: “Get us on a path to recovery and figure out how to smartly manage growth and expenses.” Make a resiliency plan “so we don’t find ourselves in as bad of a situation as we were during the COVID year.”
Over the next five years she wants to start a major capital campaign for “an entire campus refresh.”
“We have been open for more than 50 years. I want it to be exciting and new,” she says from an office that overlooks the space shuttle Pathfinder display.
“I want this place to be fresh, inviting. I want it to be a community hub, a regional hub, a state hub, a national hub where people know that we’re here and what we have to offer.
“I don’t want you to say, ‘I went there five years ago, I don’t need to go again because I know what it’s about.’ I want to have more displays of space history.”
That includes what she calls “new space” — what’s currently happening in public and private space programs.
“I think we’re on the verge of a golden space era,” Robinson says.
Deborah Storey and David Higginbotham are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville and he in Decatur.