Commanding commercialization

Robert Cabana

Positions: Director of Kennedy Space Center since October 2008; director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, 2007-October 2008; NASA astronaut, 1986-2000; pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1976-2000, when he retired at the rank of colonel.
Notable: Flew four space shuttle missions between 1990 and 1998, the last of which was the first assembly of a U.S. module on the International Space Station; as NASA’s chief astronaut from 1994 to 1997, he made crew assignments for future shuttle missions and gave input on the design and development of spacecraft; flew A-6 Intruders with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in Cherry Point, North Carolina.
Age: 71
Residence: Cocoa, Florida
Education: Bachelor of Science in mathematics from the U.S. Naval Academy, Maryland, 1971

Robert Cabana has one New Year’s resolution: launch U.S. astronauts on U.S. rockets. As director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Cabana is ultimately responsible for the Commercial Crew program that’s tasked with that challenge and is managed at his center. That’s not all his job entails, of course. The launch pads at KSC host a variable roster of NASA, government and commercial launches, a reality that Cabana hardly dared dream of when he began KSC’s transformation from space shuttle launch site to multiuser spaceport almost 10 years ago. Now, the center could be a model for an agency that’s increasingly relying on industry. I sat down with Cabana in his office at KSC to discuss this commercial future.


The end of an era, but a “fresh start”

The last shuttle flight was in July 2011, when Atlantis landed. When it came to an end, it was depressing. Not only had the shuttle program ended, but just prior to that, the Constellation program that was a new exploration program to replace it had been canceled. We went from a workforce of 15,000 down to 7,500 in two years. In fact, Atlantis landed on a Thursday in July 2011. The very next day, 2,000 contractors got pink slips and walked out the door. So there was this real low, but there aren’t many times in your life when you can define what you want your future to be. Most of the time we end up in positions where we just keep something else going and improve on it or try and make it better. But we had a fresh start, if you will.

The “seed” of KSC’s transformation

I really credit a lot of it to the year that I spent at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Stennis, in addition to being the center where all the propulsion testing gets done for NASA, is also a “federal city.” It supports the U.S. Navy; it supports universities; it supports businesses. Seeing that you could operate on a federal facility in more than just a federal way, supporting pure government programs, that helped plant a seed, if you will, that hey, how can we redefine ourselves here at the Kennedy Space Center? It was an iterative process. We set out some goals and then we added to it, and we continued to evaluate it every year to get it to where it is. At one point I said to somebody, “You can see so clearly what you want the future to be, and it’s so hard making it happen.” It took so much longer than I thought it would take. And they said, “I can’t believe you did it as fast as you did, considering you’re the federal government.” Looking back on it now, when I looked at what our strategic plan was and where we thought we would be, we far exceeded what we had planned in getting it done sooner. You can just feel the vibrancy here on the Space Coast, because it’s not just the commercial stuff going on — it’s Artemis taking us back to the moon; it’s big rockets; it’s Commercial Crew, it’s satellite launches; it’s everything that’s going on. And it’s not just here at Kennedy or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; it’s the entire Space Coast. This is a happening place.

The new NASA

I definitely think it’s a lasting change. This is how we’re operating. This is our future. It’s not us alone. It’s not just NASA; it’s NASA in partnership with our commercial partners, our international partners. The International Space Station is a great model for how we move forward, but now bring in the commercial aspect of that also, in addition to just having our international partners. As we expand the boundaries of our human existence beyond Earth, we need to do it as the people of planet Earth, in a cooperative way.

Enabling commercialization, not ensuring it

It’s not my goal to guard against them [the companies] being successful or not. I want to enable them to be successful. I want to provide the tools, the resources, the facilities that they need to be successful, but I can’t make them successful. When the shuttle program ended and we evaluated all the facilities that we had, first off: We couldn’t afford to pay for everything. As we moved into SLS [Space Launch System] and Orion, now the Artemis program, we took an initial look: What do we need for SLS and Orion? Obviously, we have to keep all those facilities. If we didn’t need it for that, then we looked at will it support commercial operations? Or, if it doesn’t support commercial operations and we don’t need it for SLS or Orion, let’s raze it, let’s tear it down and get it off our books, because we can’t afford to keep it. When we went out with a notice of availability for a lot of these facilities, a number of companies that won an award and wanted to take it over and maintain and operate it, pay a lease, whatever, were not successful. We had one company that was taking over a parachute facility, and unfortunately they didn’t win as many government contracts as they thought they were going to win, and they had to downsize and go back to just where their primary operations were, and they couldn’t expand and grow the company like they had thought. So that didn’t work out. We had another company that was doing nondestructive inspections — NDI. They tried to make a go of it for about a year and a half and eventually were not successful. It’s not our job to make the company successful; it’s to provide the environment that enables them to be successful.

Role of government versus industry

I think there are things that commercial companies can do quicker and easier sometimes than the way the government does it. We can learn from that decision velocity and a few other things, but there are some things meant for the government to do also. When I look at the cost of exploration, of going to Mars, that’s a national goal that enables industry to be a part of it, that grows our understanding, that grows our economy, that grows our knowledge. That’s an admirable thing to lead in. It’s way too expensive for any one company to take that on. It needs to be a national initiative. I think it’s really important that we continue to explore, that we establish a presence beyond our home planet. It’s really important that we enable commercial operations, also, as we do that. I look at Commercial Crew right now, and we talk about it being commercial, but it’s really just another way of doing a government procurement. We did it through Space Acts, meeting goals and stuff, and eventually went to a firm-fixed-price contract for a service. Without the International Space Station right now, there would be no destination in space for Commercial Crew. The government is key in helping enable that. A true commercial venture is: I have an idea, I go out and get venture capital, I build it, people like it, they buy it, it works, and I make a profit. But Commercial Crew, we’re looking at kind of a government-subsidized program, if you will, right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s the government’s role. But eventually, just as aviation was more or less government-subsidized in the early days, that’s kind of what we’re doing with commercial space right now. Eventually, I believe it will become commercialized and fully commercial.

The future of ISS

What’s really going to help us here is getting Commercial Crew flying. It’s going to be huge when we can increase the number of people on the International Space Station to actually do more science, to bring [people] other than professional career astronauts up to the space station to do science on the space station. That is really important, and that’s one of the main reasons I want to get Commercial Crew flying on time, so that we can gain that extra knowledge on the space station. At some point it’s going to have to come down, but until we have a transition, I definitely think we need to keep the International Space Station on orbit as a destination for Commercial Crew and for doing these commercial operations in space. But I also think we need to encourage the development of a pure commercial space station where NASA can just be one of many customers, as opposed to being totally in charge.

Improving crew safety

There’s a huge difference between the shuttle and a capsule on top of a rocket. For one thing, we’re going to have a demonstrated abort capability on both of these vehicles. The shuttle had multiple “black zones” where, depending on what the failure was, there was no way to save the crew. We’ve designed into both of these vehicles no black zones. They can safely get the crew off the rocket from T-0 to main engine cutoff on orbit and safely get the crew back, and that’s huge, having that demonstrated capability to ensure that. We’re not going to fly until we’re ready to fly. That’s the bottom line. There’s always pressure. I don’t care what you’re flying or what you’re doing. When we were flying the shuttle, there was schedule pressure to get things done. There’s always going to be a demand to get it done on time. But the bottom line is we’re dealing with human spaceflight here, and I’ve made a commitment to the crews that we’ll fly when we’re ready to fly. You talk about the model that we have today [with Commercial Crew], one of the differences is it’s insight rather than oversight. We don’t have direct oversight over the contractor, but we have insight into what the contractor is doing. They have very specific requirements; they have to show that they meet those certifications in order to fly. So, we’ve got a very good partnership with both SpaceX and Boeing, working together with them to ensure that they are meeting those requirements. When it’s safe to fly, we’ll fly. We’ve got a long way to go on both vehicles to meet those certifications.

College graduates turned new employees

I have a requirement on our team that half of our new hires have to be fresh-outs. So I’m trying to bring down — I’m not doing too well — the average age here. It is coming down a little bit. Knowledge capture is really important, pairing people up with young folks and sharing that knowledge, operational experience. I went and I had an all-hands here a while back, and I asked for a show of hands, “How many were here when we lost Columbia?” I’ll bet it was only a fourth of the audience that raised their hand. That says a lot. How we feel about things is based on our experience and our environment. I don’t want to lose those lessons learned from Columbia and Challenger and Apollo 1. It’s important that we don’t forget that. I don’t want to learn those lessons a second time, or a third time, or a fourth time. But we have to share the things that we do right, also, how we operate. But I will tell you, the fresh-outs, the kids that are coming aboard — and they are kids, by my standards — they have so much talent, and they have tools that we never had. I’ve got interns writing software to launch SLS and Orion. That’s awesome.

The next decade

I want to continue to carry forward this multiuser spaceport that we’ve established. I think it’s phenomenal when you look at what we’re supporting here: the government launches as well as all the commercial operations that have taken place here at KSC. It’s a partnership between industry and government; it’s a partnership between KSC and the state, working with the state of Florida; it’s a partnership between the Kennedy Space Center and the 45th Space Wing [of the U.S. Air Force] and the FAA. A lot of agreements had to get put in place to help enable what we are doing today, so I definitely want to see that go forward and continue to grow and solidify. I also think there’s things we can do better. There’s a few more agreements I’d like to see in place. There’s ease of operations. I want to continue to work on the bureaucracy, if you will, of what it takes in order to operate and launch here on a government facility in a commercial nature. I want to ensure that the infrastructure that was built back in the 1960s is able to support the growth of this spaceport as it continues to grow, and so we need to make sure that that’s in place. But overall, [there’s] not a whole lot that I want to change; I just want to improve on some stuff.

Back to the moon, on to Mars

No. 1 goal in this decade is in the very first quarter of the first year this decade getting crews to the International Space Station on a U.S. rocket. The goal is sustainable operations in a lunar environment. There’s nothing easy about keeping humans alive in space, in a harsh environment like the lunar environment or the Martian environment. That’s this next 10 years; it’s getting established sustainable human operations in a lunar environment. Humans, they need air to breathe, they need CO2 scrubbed; you’ve got to give them food to eat; you’ve got to take care of their trash; you’ve got to provide a pressurized environment. That’s a huge challenge for this next decade, but I’ve got to say, we have bipartisan support in both houses of Congress for what we’re doing, we’ve got a $1.3 billion increase to our budget to help us get back to the moon by 2024, and we’re going to continue to need increases like that as we go forward. We have huge support right now to make this happen. Now is the time. We’re going to do this. We are very capable. If you think in May of 1961, Alan Shephard did a suborbital flight in a small little capsule on a Mercury Redstone [rocket], just over eight years later we’re walking on the moon. That is phenomenal. Even with half of 1% of the federal budget, we can do this. I think this nation can do anything it sets its mind to, given the resolve and the support.

Related Topics

Human Spaceflight

“When we were flying the shuttle, there was schedule pressure to get things done. There’s always going to be a demand to get it done on time. But the bottom line is we’re dealing with human spaceflight here, and I’ve made a commitment to the crews that we’ll fly when we’re
ready to fly.”

Robert Cabana
Engineers, technicians and crane operators practice moving Space Launch System solid rocket booster test segments at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

Commanding commercialization