An astronaut turned NASA executive calls it a career

In 38 years at NASA, today’s Federal Drive guest has done lots of things. As an astronaut, he flew three space missions, commanding two of them. He oversaw retirement of the Space Shuttle. He rose to associate administration, the number three ranking person at NASA. Now he’s retiring. That was more than enough to get the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to offer this extended interview to Bob Cabana.

Interview Transcript  

Tom Temin Is it safe to say that it’s unusual for someone who was an operational type of person, actual astronaut, to rise into the managerial ranks this high at NASA?

Bob Cabana No, we actually had Admiral Dick Truly arise to be NASA administrator. And so Charlie Bolden, NASA’s administrator, also an astronaut. So we’ve had a number of astronauts in senior leadership positions at NASA.

Tom Temin Could that be one reason that NASA has consistently high scores in the federal employee viewpoint survey is because the mission and the idea of what you’re actually doing stays high in the ranks of leadership as opposed to management from some sort of an academic standpoint or business standpoint.

Bob Cabana I think there’s some truth to that. My belief is we’re number one on the Employee Viewpoint survey, 11 years in a row, because of the mission that we have. We have a meaningful mission that’s really important not just to our nation, but for humanity. But more importantly, I believe it’s how we treat our people. We have what we call a NASA family, and we really look after our team in one another in creating that environment, along with the mission, being focused on doing something that’s really important, where everybody has a role to play, it makes it a little easier to be the best.

Tom Temin Sure. And I like to think of people in terms of cohorts sometimes, because in the coverage we’ve been doing and what I’ve been covering for 30 years in the federal government. You have 1102, say, contracting officers. That’s a cohort where people that are CIOs. One of the rarer or more rarefied cohorts is people that have flown in space. And I don’t know how many there are of you, probably just a couple of hundred, really, when you add it all up. Is that a cohort from your standpoint? And what kind of cohort do you have on an ongoing basis? For those that did actually fly in space?

Bob Cabana Actually, it’s over 500 now. As a matter of fact, when I flew my first flight back in 1990, I turns out I was the 211 human to fly in space. But we do get together through various professional societies as well as we have an annual astronaut reunion that usually takes place down here in Houston in the December timeframe every other year. The Association of Space Explorers, many of us are members of that. They have an annual Congress where we get together, and that’s international, not just U.S. astronaut reunion as it is here in Houston. So, yeah, absolutely. We get together and I think all the astronauts they’re concerned about the future. They want to see us take care of our planet. They want us to see us continue to explore and expand beyond their home planet.

Tom Temin And I’ve always wondered someone having flown in space, do you feel that it changed you in some way? I’ve always been a little disappointed with how reticent, like Neil Armstrong was about his experience and being the first man on the moon, as you know, no mean thing. And yet he didn’t talk about it much and was reticent about what psychological or perspective changes that might have produced. So my question is, does it change a person to have flown in space, even if not to the moon?

Bob Cabana Well, I think it definitely offers you a different perspective on our on our planet. And Neil is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known more than an astronaut. He was a test pilot. And he loved being a professor and teaching and sharing his knowledge. But I think from an astronauts perspective, one of the things that stands out most when you look down on the earth from low-Earth orbit is the fragility of our home planet. When you see the atmosphere, this thin, little hazy line that is protecting us from that harsh void of space, he looks kind of fragile. The other thing that you notice is you don’t see the boundaries between countries. You just see this is Spaceship Earth, this one planet that we all live on that we have to take care of. And I think that’s really important. You see back when the rainforest was being burned off, you could see the plumes from all the fires. And it’s just it gives you a unique perspective. That overview effect that people talk about is real. I just believe that we need to learn to work together to take care of our home planet and to ensure that we have a sustainable future.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Cabana. He’s associate administrator of NASA, retiring at the end of December. And what was your decision process for staying with the agency after retiring from flight? Because people do go on to a lot of other things. You, as you mentioned, a few others have stayed with NASA. What was your motivation?

Bob Cabana Absolutely. Well, so first off, the first 15 years of my 38 years at NASA was as an active duty Marine being selected to be an astronaut. About half the astronaut corps is active duty military. And NASA reimburses [Department of Defense (DoD)] for paying allowances. And I was a colonel in the Marine Corps, and approaching my 30 year mandatory retirement at being a general officer. And I’d had offers to do a lot of different things. But at that time, I was working as the manager for international operations for the space station program. And I wanted to see that through. I wanted to see us continue to build the International Space Station, see it through to completion, to be part of all the amazing things that NASA was doing. And I felt that I could do that best by staying with NASA. So I retired from the Marine Corps and moved into this senior executive service and in a leadership position. And then continually got asked to take on positions of greater responsibility.

Tom Temin And at the top, we mentioned you were overseeing the retirement of the space shuttle program, and a lot of us can remember it from its inception to its retirement. And what’s involved in ending a program because there’s a lot of programmatic money and administrative process connected with a program like that, but there’s also a lot of physical infrastructure.

Bob Cabana Absolutely. So at the time the shuttle program ended, I was the director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the space shuttles, of course, were processed and launched and recovered and got ready for flight again. So I wasn’t overseeing the entire retirement of the shuttle program. That was done via the shuttle program manager. But transitioning the Kennedy Space Center to the future, that was huge. So ensuring that we processed I was there for the remaining 12 shuttle missions when I got there in October of 2008. The last shuttle flew in July of 2011. And I added an awesome team. And we worked extremely hard to make sure that the last mission was flown as safely as could possibly be done. And it was probably one of the cleanest flights that we had. So keeping the team motivated to continue to do well, knowing that they weren’t going to have a job when the program ended, we went from a workforce of 15,000 down to 7500 in 2 years. When the space shuttle Atlantis landed in July of 2011, it was on a Thursday. On Friday, the very next day, 2,000 contractors got pink slips and walked out the door. But yet they performed flawlessly right up to the end. That’s the kind of dedication of the workforce.

Tom Temin My guest is Bob Cabana, associate administrator of NASA, retiring at the end of December.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Cabana. He’s a 38 year veteran of NASA and a marine Corps veteran. He flew in space three times and is about to retire as NASA’s associate administrator. Before the break, we were talking about retirement of the space shuttle and the sunsetting of that program. It must have caused a lot of regret to see all that engineering talent and experience walk out the door. Was there any way of preserving that knowledge in that learning?

Bob Cabana So it was a real challenge. And obviously most of the folks that walked out the door were the technicians that actually did the hands on labor processing the orbiters. But there was an engineering workforce that went also. We worked with our workforce. About a third of the folks were eligible to retire, and a third of the folks found jobs elsewhere, many moving outside of Florida in order to find work. So it was a huge challenge, motivating the team and then working to help take care of them afterwards. It was compounded by the fact that in 2010, the Constellation program that was to replace the space shuttle had been canceled. So there was no real significant work for KSC of the magnitude of the shuttle program after that. But with the advent of the space launch system, SLS and Orion, with a future in exploration, still maintaining the space station, which was all the cargo and stuff, that process to KSC, we started building back how could we enable the resources that we have to support commercial operations? And that was the path forward. The commercial crew program started with commercial cargo. So we transitioned KSC from this pure government spaceport to a Multiuser spaceport, commercial and government going forward. And that’s where we put our effort, because all the facilities at KSC were pretty much paid for by the shuttle program. So we had to find, we couldn’t afford it all. So what do we need to keep to make SLS successful for our exploration program? And I can talk more about Artemus and going back to the moon. It’s absolutely amazing program we have right now. I’d like to talk about that. But from the transition point of view, it was what do we have that would enable commercial operations? And if it was needed for SLS, we kept it. If it was able to be used by commercial space, we kept it. If it didn’t support either those, we raised it and got it off our books to be more affordable. But it was an amazing transition by the team, working with the community and working together, iterating this over time to have this vision of what we could be and then make it happen.

Tom Temin And by the way, just a personal question. Do the blueprints for the space shuttle, do they still exist somewhere?

Bob Cabana Oh, I’m sure they do. And if you haven’t had a chance to actually go see the space shuttle out, Udvar-Hazy.

Tom Temin Oh, I have.

Bob Cabana At the Kennedy Space Center, we have the space shuttle Atlantis. The space shuttle Endeavor is out at the California Science Center. They’re getting ready for a brand new display out there that’s going to be amazing up on the Intrepid up in New York. You can see Enterprise, the approaching Atlantis vehicle and at its space center in Houston at the Johnson Space Center. They have a life size mockup of the space shuttle mounted on top of the 747 carrier aircraft carrier aircraft. It’s amazing to see also.

Tom Temin And you mentioned, of course, the switch over to the commercial space port operation. And, of course, the Artemus and the next generation of Moon Landing is a integration effort of a number of contractors and commercial capabilities. But the architecture of that program is somewhat more complex than the Apollo program because you have space based refueling and so forth and using the moon in a more permanent way, perhaps as a launch pad to Mars in all of this. A lot of moving parts. And they’re not all under NASA’s roof, they’re all under contractor roofs coordinated by NASA. And so it’s late, I think probably 20, 25 for that launch of Artemus sounds ambitious. What’s your sense of how this will all come together eventually?

Bob Cabana Well, first on the Artemis program, Artemus is the twin sister of Apollo that we went to the moon with the first time in Greek mythology. And I think it’s very appropriate, as we intend to put the first woman and person of color on the moon. The Artemis program, we’re going back to the moon in a sustainable way, not a 2 or 3 day camping trip like we did with Apollo. And what we really want to do is learn how to operate away from our home planet in a sustainable way in preparation for going on to Mars. We’re going to the south pole of the moon because there’s water ice there. We believe tons of it in water is hydrogen fuel and oxygen to breathe so that we can utilize lunar resources for our longer stays there. We want to go for weeks at a time. But how we are going, it’s not purely. First off, every space vehicle that’s been built has been built by a contractor. It’s just how do we procure them? And we’re using Space Act agreements. We’re using other vehicles in order to procure the vehicles that we need. We’re doing it in partnership with our commercial partners so that they can actually use those vehicles for commercial access to the moon, also. So it’s a joint international commercial industry, government partnership, a consortium that’s taking us back in a sustainable way that we can really make this happen and keep it to continue preparing our selves for going on to Mars. So, yes, it’s a huge challenge. And I don’t believe we’ll see how things work out here. But 25 is going to be a challenge because we have to have a lander. And competition is good. We have SpaceX working on their starship with their super heavy launch vehicle. They flown their second test flight out of Boca Chica down in Texas. But we have also contracted with Blue and their team to build a second lander to have this similar redundancy in competition. It creates innovation, it also helps keeps costs down, but it improves our industrial base as a whole.

Tom Temin And thinking about what you mentioned about sustainability and sustained activity by people on the moon for longer periods of time than, as you put it, the camping trip of a couple of days maybe, or a few hours. Then there becomes you tell me not just an engineering and a life sustainment engineering challenge here to keep people alive and comfortable, but what about the psychological aspect of someone waking up in the morning and, by golly, you can’t run over to Sheetz to get coffee and a hot dog. And so maybe we need a Sheetz and space someday. But what about that part of it for the people that will actually participate in this?

Bob Cabana Actually, the coffee’s pretty darn good in space. I had some awesome instant Kona coffee. I’m a huge coffee guy and Kona coffee with a little bit of cream and sugar. And I normally drink my coffee black, but it called for eight ounces of water and I’d put four ounces of hot water in it, mix it up and had this like mini cappuccino when I was on orbit in the morning. So yeah, I think that’s  the goal is how do we do this? How do we get all the supplies there and do it in a sustainable way from a psychological point of view. A short trip to the moon is different from a trip to Mars. I think that’s the challenge is when we go on to Mars with current propulsion technology, you’re talking a year and a half to two years for a martian mission, 6 to 8 months to get there, 6 to 8 months on Mars for the planets to align for another 6 to 8 month trip home. Studies I’ve seen say we have to pre-staged like 20 metric tons of supplies and equipment on Mars before humans can even go there. If we want to keep them alive and and sustain them. So these are huge challenges. The reliability of the systems. And this is where the space station has just been outstanding. It is a superb engineering testbed to develop and prove the systems that we need in a microgravity environment or cruise as we have these extended duration missions going forward. Not to mention, the science and learning how the human system behaves for extended periods in a microgravity. We have a lot of challenges that we have to conquer. Edema of the optic nerve, swelling of the optic nerve that affects vision. Maybe it’s swelling of the brain is what’s causing this, bone loss. You shed calcium in space. There are so many things that we need to understand better for long duration spaceflight. One of the huge challenges is going to be the radiation environment as we leave low-Earth orbit and the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Tom Temin And what are your personal plans after Dec.31 when you leave NASA? I can’t believe you’re just going to put your feet up and swing on a chair somewhere.

Bob Cabana So you’re probably right. But I’ve made a commitment to myself for six months I’m not going to do anything except spend time with family. And I plan to climb Machu Picchu sometime next year and probably take another cycling trip. I’ve cycled across Spain and Italy and in Andorra on the French Spanish border. I need another maybe in Eastern Europe or somewhere. But I’m  going to find some way to stay engaged in space, but it’s not going to be a full time job. I want to be able to have time with my grandchildren while I’m still getting up to keep up with them.

Tom Temin Yeah. So all that time and space and dealing with space then really helps you appreciate the earth, sounds like.

Bob Cabana Absolutely. The Earth is truly a beautiful blue jewel of the planet. And what NASA does, it’s really important. All the vehicles that we have orbiting the Earth, all the satellites that monitor our Earth’s environment, that understand the Earth’s system and how it’s changing so that we can accurately model it so that we know how to protect it. That is so important. And I just, people talk about living on the moon or living on Mars. Mars is an awful place to live. It’s got a low atmosphere, it’s got methane atmosphere. Earth is just beautiful, and there’s no place else nearby that’s anything like it. So we need to take care of it.


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