Robert Cabana, Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
The substance of true leadership is often manifest in times of transition and crisis, as we see in individuals like Lincoln, Churchill and Rosa Parks. Their leadership embodies that rare combination of vision, character and courage, which realistically assesses the challenges that must be faced, while also seeing those challenges as potential opportunities. They are the ones who either birth, or perhaps preserve, something vital to all of us. Robert “Bob” Cabana, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), has guided the spaceport through one of the most critical transitions in its history. However, he is also quick to point to his team and the contributions of the many, instead of the one, in setting the stage for the center’s future. But that kind of honest humility is why, for more than a decade, his leadership has been invaluable. He lives by what Ken Blanchard spoke of when he said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
Cabana put it this way: “I truly believe in servant leadership, and this is probably the number one attribute I learned in the Marine Corps. If you put the welfare of the team above your own, you will be successful. In other words, if you take care of your people, your people will take care of you.”
Not long after he became director, this region realized the space shuttle program would actually be retired, and Cabana’s elasticity, vision and cool-under-pressure test-pilot experience have guided the center’s evolution. For the first time since the creation of NASA, our capacity to put humans into space went through a hiatus, with no clear end in sight. The predictions were dire, and morale, not only at KSC but across the county for America’s future in space, was low.
Now the space industry has not only been revived, it has been rising like a phoenix. Commercial space, with visionary leaders like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are redefining how payloads, including human payloads, can be delivered. Once again space, with its mystery and limitless potential, has captured the popular imagination.
That potential and possibility is something Cabana never lost focus on.
“I was director of the Stennis Space Center before I came here,” he explained. “Though it’s much smaller than Kennedy or Houston, it’s unique in that there’s more than just NASA there. I learned what a multi-user center could be like, which helped crystallize for me what a multi-user spaceport, which is what we’re becoming, could be like.”
“The key to leadership is trust, and to have trust you have to have integrity with your team. It takes a lot of time to build trust, but it can be easily lost.” ⊲
The Path to Leadership
Growing up in Minnesota, Cabana dreamed of being not only a pilot, but a test pilot, while honing his work ethic on the very terrestrial tasks of helping on a family farm. A good student and a voracious reader, Cabana earned an appointment to Annapolis. “Attending the Naval Academy really opened a completely new horizon for me,” he said. “Looking back, I lived a pretty sheltered life up until that point, which is when I began to tap into what you might call my latent leadership abilities. The academy is where I really grew up.”
After graduation his eyesight initially prevented him from becoming a pilot. Undeterred, he distinguished himself for three years as a naval flight officer, while he continued to petition for flight training, which eventually was granted. “Flying was everything I wanted to do; it just came naturally to me,” Cabana said. Earning his wings as the top Marine in flight training, he looks back on postponing his dream as a positive, not a negative, experience. Perhaps one that would give him the resolve necessary for the next major opportunity — becoming an astronaut.
“In 1980 I was initially turned down for test pilot’s school — they weren’t looking for A-6 pilots, but six months later I got in,” he remembered. “Then I saw in 1984 that NASA was looking for its third group of shuttle pilots and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I met all the criteria, I even went down to Houston for an interview and thought, ‘This was it!’ I just waited for the call, which I got, but it was that I didn’t make it. In 1985 however, I was selected. I didn’t get into flight school, test pilot training or astronaut training on the first try; it was a lesson in perseverance.”
From Commander to Director
Cabana enjoyed the collegium of astronaut training, as well as the opportunity to work with and learn from world-renowned experts in their fields. “I did four very unique space flights (STS 41, 53, 65 and 88) and enjoyed every aspect of them. When you’re passionate about something, the training, the preparation, the study is all exciting and stimulating,” he asserted.
Speaking of his flights as an astronaut he said, “I was never scared during a lift-off. Though I remember the first time I went into the Shuttle simulator and looked at all the gauges, dials and switches, I thought, ‘How will I possibly learn all of this?’ But you take it one step at a time, one system at a time and eventually you master it,” he explained.
He then added, “Leading an astronaut crew is like being a member in a family. You don’t get to choose your family, and every family has its own peculiarities that need to be taken into consideration. So you learn to work with everyone to help ensure mission success. You expect people to make mistakes, we all do, but you can learn from them and rise above them. Later, I was chief of the astronauts’ office; imagine leading 115 Type A personalities?”
“Almost universally, everyone agrees that what we are doing here is bringing people together around a very positive goal.”
It is hard to say which was the most challenging and rewarding position Cabana has held. What is interesting, though, is after he sought to become an astronaut, he never actually pursued another position; they all came to him. In 2007 he became the 10th director of the Kennedy Space Center.
Reaching for the Future
It is impossible to reach for what can be in the future if you do not let go of your past. It was a lesson that was difficult for many at KSC to embrace.
Cabana recalls, “In my very first all-hands meeting I had after taking over as director, I told everyone we needed to start preparing for the retirement of the shuttle. A lot of folks didn’t want to hear that. It took time for it to sink in, especially when the Constellation program was canceled.”
Cabana believes the future lies in enabling commercial operations. “We’ve been moving towards this multi-user spaceport,” he said. “We started charting where we wanted to be and reviewed and reiterated it continually over the years.”
Has it been challenging? Without a doubt, but Cabana freely admits, “The difficulties I’ve encountered over the last 10 years are nothing compared with having to go to the families of the Columbia’s shuttle crew and tell them their loved ones would never return.”
Experts say it takes three to five years and constant pressure to change the culture of an organization, and without the pressure it will return to where it was. Bob Cabana is determined to keep up the pressure on a team that one day may put the first humans on Mars.