Vanderbilt Magazine

Kimberly Robinson, BE’89: A New Space Age

Courtesy of Kimberly Robinson

As a high school student who excelled in math and science, Kimberly Robinson thought about becoming a teacher. Then in her senior year, she won an award from the Society of Women Engineers. It changed her life.

“I didn’t even know women could be engineers,” she says. “They flew in a NASA astronaut who presented the award to me. I wanted to be just like her, and she was an engineer.”

Robinson, named in February 2021 as CEO and executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, recalls finding many cold shoulders as she applied for scholarships to college engineering programs, but she got a warm welcome at Vanderbilt. “I loved my time at Vanderbilt,” she says. “I had a great education, and it challenged me all the way through. I learned to do better, try harder and think more deeply. It was great training that I still use in my career.”

She earned her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1989 and then launched what would be a 31-year tenure at NASA. She earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Alabama in Huntsville during the early years of her career.

Robinson steadily climbed the NASA ranks—project engineer, astronaut trainer, executive intern, project integration manager for Ares 1-X, NASA fellow and more. She received numerous NASA performance awards, including the prestigious Silver Snoopy—given to employees who ensure flight safety and mission success during human space flights—just six years into her career, as well as an Exceptional Achievement Medal for innovation and impact.

Most recently, she held leadership positions with the Artemis program, whose mission is to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon with the eventual goal of sending astronauts to Mars.

As Robinson took the helm of the Space & Rocket Center, the country was still under mask mandates for COVID-19, and the vaccine rollout had just started. The pandemic hit the center hard. The popular—and profitable—Space Camp programs were shuttered for months and in danger of permanently closing. A special fundraising campaign launched in summer 2020 kept the center’s doors open. In her first days, Robinson launched a strategic planning process to position the center for success in this new environment.

Robinson believes that the nation is on the brink of another exciting Space Age, similar to the 1960s and the groundbreaking Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

“The progress we made in the 1960s led to leaps and bounds in technology,” she says. “I believe we are on the cusp of that again, and we will be able to use what is discovered in space and put it to use on Earth. Also, you’ve got Virgin Atlantic, SpaceX and Blue Origin showing that anyone will be able to go into space, not just the tiny handful that get into NASA’s astronaut program.

“These are exciting times, and we are here to promote and further that excitement.”

—Jan Read