C. Howard Robins, Jr.
Aeronautical Engineering, Class of 1958, BS
Physics, Class of 1967, Ph.D.
C. Howard Robins, Jr., says he has lived his life “in the right place at the right time.”
“My folks told me when I was in high school that they could not afford to send me to college, so I went to work early,” Howard says. But, as luck would have it, his father read in the newspaper about the cooperative education program that allowed participants to alternate a quarter of work with a quarter of college course work. The co-op program became the key to Howard’s college education.
His high school principal told him “the best engineering school in the region was VPI,” so he applied and was accepted. The second stroke of luck was Virginia Tech had extension campuses scattered around the state in the 1950s, including one in his hometown of Norfolk. He lived at home the first year to save expenses. His fate improved yet again when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Laboratory, also adjacent to his hometown, accepted him as a co-op student. (NACA was the precursor to NASA.) He transferred to the Virginia Tech campus as a sophomore in aeronautical engineering, and by his junior year he was co-oping in the rocket division of the laboratory.
During his senior year, Howard and some of his fellow classmates were the overall winners in the equivalent of today’s national aerospace student design competition. “We won first, second, and third for the southeast district; first and third for the Middle Atlantic region; and second and third for the Northeast. We took eight of the 24 possible awards in the country,” Howard recalls. “Thanks to Professor Robert Truitt, the department head, Virginia Tech’s aero curriculum was as good as any place in the country,” Howard says.
The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, and the race was on to explore space. “When I graduated in 1958, aerospace majors had as many job offers as they wanted. NACA was a terrific working environment. I was able to join them, and they sponsored me for graduate school at Virginia Tech.” He again combined work with school and received his doctorate in physics in 1967. Along the way, he also secured an MSA in management engineering from George Washington University, and he attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard University.
Howard spent 1958 through 1961 as the mission planning and performance analyst for Project Scout. He recalls hearing President Kennedy give his famous speech about landing American astronauts on the moon, and decided on the spot “that I was going to get on that project.” He moved to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to work on the Apollo and, subsequently, the Skylab Projects. The latter was the nation’s first space station mission. In Houston, he met his wife, Pat, a NASA employee who also had been captivated by the Apollo mission.
In 1967, Howard transferred back to NASA Langley where he continued to serve in a number of management positions, now on the mission to Mars called the Viking Project. NASA wanted to search for evidence of life and to obtain information about the surface of Mars, characterizing its structure and composition. “These types of missions were very demanding. Planets are only in the right positions at certain times, so you must live by a schedule. The position of Mars determined the project dates, and you cannot fail. There was very high pressure to stay on time, on schedule, and on budget. We had some two dozen experiments to run, and 23 of the 24 worked,” Howard smiles.
In the late 1960s and into the next decade, Howard recalls the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and the recession were vying for the nation’s resources, and Congressional support for NASA waned amidst the competition. Howard moved to NASA’s Washington, D.C. Headquarters Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology in 1976 after the two successful Mars landings. “I was coming off the agency’s number one unmanned project, Viking. Now, I was working on the Orbiter Experiments Program and the Long-Duration Exposure Facility Program. I was shocked to see the Agency’s budget problem,” he says. But he continued to develop new ground for the space agency, and in 1980 was appointed Chief of the Mission Operations and Information Systems Branch of the Planetary Division of the Office of Space Science and Applications.
Three years later NASA selected him for the President’s Executive Exchange program, and he was given a one-year assignment as Acting Director of Research and Development at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. “Again, it was another stroke of luck as the director retired as I was arriving. I have a lucky charm. And Newport News was changing its management approach, starting to build ships on a project basis as I had done at NASA.”
“This was a wonderful experience,” Howard says. “I could close my eyes and feel like I was still at NASA. We did manage to get the two organizations closer, and I discovered the shipyard was a tremendous resource for NASA Langley management to set up some exchanges.”
Howard returned to NASA Headquarters in 1984, where he subsequently served as Deputy and then Associate Administrator for Management. In 1991, he was appointed the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Systems Development, responsible for assisting in executive leadership of major system development efforts, including the International Space Station. “I enjoyed project work, and management was particularly interesting. I made the simple discovery that the root of almost all engineering problems is people. Problems are almost always management problems. For example, the defective seal on the Challenger and the foam on Columbia were symptoms, not causes. He received the Outstanding Leadership Medal for directing the effort to restore the NASA institution following the Challenger accident. He also received the Exceptional Achievement Medal for leading the effort to completely revise the agency’s management system for major system development programs and projects, and the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive.
He retired from NASA in 1994, and served as an Executive in Residence at Virginia Tech from 1994 through 1998. Working from the Northern Virginia campus, he led a number of initiatives, assisted in teaching graduate classes in management, and was a consultant to the federal government in program and project management. “Two institutions made my life — Virginia Tech and NASA. I have tremendous loyalty to both. When we achieve things, if we achieve things, it is always with help. Virginia Tech is a school of opportunity and that is a legacy we should not forget,” Howard says.
Howard remains a member of Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Gamma Tau, Kappa Theta Epsilon, Sigma Pi Sigma, and Sigma Xi. He is a member of Executive Partners, a group of veteran leaders from the work force who interact with MBA students at William and Mary. He is on the Board of Governors at his country club, is active with the Williamsburg Kiwanis, and continues to consult.
Howard and Pat of Williamsburg, Virginia, have two children, Staci and Clinton Howard III. “My daughter is the black sheep, turning down Virginia Tech twice,” he jokes. But she did follow in her father’s footsteps, working as a program analyst at NASA. His son works in marketing management, having received his business degree from Virginia Tech in 1988.
Class of: 1958, 1967
Year Inducted into Academy: 2005