When NASA ended the 30-year-old space shuttle program in 2011, the future of the famed John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida was in grave doubt.
During the past eight years, center director Robert Cabana and his management team have been responsible for a major resurgence of the facility, transforming it into the world’s preeminent site for government and commercial space exploration.
Kelvin Manning, an associate director at the Kennedy Space Center, said the facility was “pretty much going out of business” when the space shuttle was retired. But Cabana, he said, had a new vision for the center, exhibited exceptional leadership and a relentless determination to expand America’s role in space.
“Bob Cabana’s groundbreaking strategy has been a resounding success,” Manning said. “The Kennedy Space Center is now partnering with multiple commercial customers, supporting new government programs and preparing to send astronauts farther than ever before aboard the Orion spacecraft.”
During the past two years, there have been more than 40 space launches from the Florida complex, representing about 20% of all space launches worldwide. The majority of the space flights now taking place at the center previously were occurring overseas, resulting in loss of intellectual capital, U.S manufacturing capacity and long-term damage to the American economy.
Cabana said that along with the work of private sector partners such as Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Space Florida, the center is “still supporting NASA’s science missions and developing two new vehicles to fly crews to the International Space Station.” This means the crews will “go up on a U.S. rocket from the U.S. so we don’t have to rely on our Russian partners anymore,” he said.
At the same time, the center has plans “to take us back to the moon and on to Mars,” Cabana added.
Charles Bolden, a former NASA administrator, said Cabana became director of the space center in 2008 and soon found himself dealing with its future.
“He had to change the mindset of people to think a little more commercially and a little more like the private sector,” Bolden said. “Many people were reluctant to work with the private sector, but
Bob stood up as the lone ranger, the one person who had a vision for what the Kennedy Space Center could be.”
Bolden said Cabana “had the persistence and the patience to stick with it and really make it happen.”
“He spent a lot of time team building, making sure that he empowered his team to make decisions and then backed them up, and defended them when he briefed their ideas at headquarters or before Congress,” Bolden said.
During Cabana’s tenure, the space center’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score jumped from 69.4 out of 100 in 2009 to 84.2 in 2018—a huge increase–and to a ranking of 13 out of 415 agency subcomponents.
For Cabana and his team to accomplish their goals, they had to gain internal support as well as congressional buy-in, and they had to create a master plan that incorporated the needs of the Air Force along with the Cape Canaveral National Seashore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the center’s massive 144,000-acre footprint.
They also leveraged excess infrastructure to house the commercial users as well as facilities required for the Orion space vehicle and the new Space Launch System, a huge undertaking. So far, there are more than 90 active agreements with private sector partners, and more than 50 facilities at the space center designated for commercial use.
This includes Boeing’s experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the Air Force, and a Boeing crew and cargo processing facility that will house the Starliner spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Sean O’Keefe, also a former NASA administrator, said Cabana’s work “transforming the Apollo-era, shuttle-centric flight center to the array of commercial, private ventures” follows his career as a Navy aviator, an astronaut who flew four space missions, the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, and the director of the Stennis Space Center.
“He’s spent four-plus decades in public service and demonstrated exemplary leadership at every level and every task,” O’Keefe said. “Among the many impressive people I have worked with, Bob Cabana stands out as one of the most profoundly dedicated public servants I’ve ever known.”
Cabana prefers to give credit to others, but he acknowledges pride in his work at the Kennedy Space Center.
“There are very few times in your career when you get to define what you want the future to be. We actually got to define what we wanted for the future of the Kennedy Space Center,” Cabana said. “It’s really an exciting time. I’ve got an amazing senior leadership team, and we’re not done yet.”