Up Close With Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana

It was a challenge that could have withered the stoutest heart. After three decades and 135 flights the Space Shuttle program was being retired. A source of pride for every American and a source of jobs for thousands of workers at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) came to an end in 2011. The individual who was responsible for delivering those “pink slips” and for setting a new vision to carry America’s spaceport into the 21st century was former Shuttle astronaut and Marine aviator, KSC Director Robert Cabana. Described as the “clean marine,” reminiscent of the famous astronaut/statesman John Glenn, Cabana’s gracious demeanor, infectious enthusiasm and clear eye leadership has galvanized the Center’s workforce as they launch a new era on the Space Coast.

The Evolution of KSC

The whole transition to a multi-user spaceport was not something that was seen right away. People want stability and when the Space Shuttle was being phased out, many were looking for another 30-year program to replace it, all laid out with clear objectives, milestones and funding. The truth is, security today is rooted in the ability to adapt and accept change. If we stayed the same we would have become irrelevant.

We have diversified and accepted these commercial operations, because part of our overarching mission is to facilitate commercial ventures. As we focus on High Earth Orbit (HEO) these commercial operations are well suited to take the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) tasks the Space Shuttle was performing. Most experts say that to effect a cultural change takes three to five years. We started in 2010 and now five years later they are excited about it; our people want to see all this happen.  

 At the end of ‘09, when the Shuttle ended and Constellation was canceled, there was some uncertainly. But it became clear that commercial space operations were a major factor in where we wanted to go, so that NASA could focus on its mission of exploration and discovery. We will get boots on Mars and do the challenging job of exploring beyond Mars and we’re putting the infrastructure in place, here at KSC to accomplish that mission.

America’s Premier Spaceport

In pursuing that objective, it leaves a lot of infrastructure available to facilitate commercial space operations. So we looked at how we can  utilize or reallocate those resources that are excess to what NASA needs, but are still very viable, along with the workforce that is in this area.

The Orbital Processing Facility One (OPF1) could have been razed, along with Orbital Processing Facility Three, not to mention Launch Pad 39A just rusting away. Instead, the Air Force is using OPF1, Boeing is in OPF3 and SpaceX has a 20 year use agreement for Pad 39A. They hope to launch a rocket off that pad before the end of the year. In addition there are others coming who want to utilize our excess capacity.

It is not unreasonable to believe that one day we will have commercial space stations in LEO, with commercial vehicles flying researchers to and from these facilities. Eventually commercial space may reach beyond LEO and you will see suborbital flights and orbital flights. 

On our part, we are endeavoring to create an environment where these commercial entities are able to be as autonomous as possible. Our growth isn’t going to be from more NASA personnel at KSC, but personnel to facilitate commercial endeavors. We are working closely with the Air Force to explore commercial options out on Cape Canaveral and we are exploring another sight for a launch pad north of Pad 39B.

I have no objections to space vehicles being launched elsewhere, California, Alaska etc., I just want to ensure Kennedy Space Center is America’s premium spaceport for government and commercial launches. 

Lessons from the Space Shuttle’s Retirement 

The most important lesson I learned in that process was the significance of leadership. I often tell people that the supervisors at NASA are leaders, not managers. It is a vital distinction. You manage resources, you manage your budget, but you lead people. Though some people are born with leadership aptitude or charisma, everyone can learn to be a better leader and the bottom line is we all can practice more effective leadership skills. 

To lead effectively you have to have the integrity to be open and honest with people. Secondly, you have to communicate a clear vision of where you are going so they can see it and embrace it. We clearly stated what the situation was to everyone and what the impact would be, and were equally clear with our vision so we got buy-in from them and continually reiterated it to ensure everyone was moving in the same direction.

Frankly, it has worked. Yes, the past five years have been some of the most challenging in my career, but where we are today and what Kennedy Space Center is aligning for is extraordinary.

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of SpaceCoast Business.
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