Former astronaut Robert Cabana, a retired U.S. Marine colonel, is on a mission, one he never would have imagined when he signed up to become a NASA space shuttle pilot in 1985. As director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Cabana, 63, is overseeing the transformation of the Florida spaceport, which has spent the last three decades focused almost exclusively on processing the space shuttles and its payloads for flight. The new vision is to turn KSC into a multiuser business, research, test and operations center. Future NASA programs — namely, the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — will be a big part of KSC’s mandate, but they are by no means the only ones. Under Cabana’s leadership, KSC is working to open its gates to a variety of commercial companies, educational institutes and other government agencies.
He sketched out his view of the future during an interview last month with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz.
With the space shuttle retired, where do you see your challenges and can you point to some successes showing this transition is actually happening?
As far as where we’re headed and how we’re going to get there, nothing has really changed in the last six months. It has just cemented things in place more. I think the thing that has changed is that the team is onboard with making it happen. When I look back on last year, it was an extremely challenging year, with the retirement of the shuttle and the layoff of the work force, the cancellation of Constellation, coming up with our defined architecture for the future, being under a continuing resolution for funding. As we worked through the year, slowly it came together and in the end, we had a budget and a path forward.
We had very wisely worked with the funding that we did have to continue to make modifications to KSC that would support the future — both the heavy-lift program that will allow us to explore, and a commercial program that would support commercial crew and cargo. On the heavy-lift, the work that we were doing supported any architecture that we might move forward. There were things that we needed to do regardless of what the architecture was. Now knowing the architecture, we can make those changes that are more specific.
You could really see change in the team at the end of the year as we had a budget, as we had a defined path forward. Folks were getting on board to make that future viable. Now, I see it as a continuation of what we already set in place.
KSC also had some organizational changes, reflecting the new mission after shuttle. What are those?
We’re standing up a new ground operations directorate to support both government and commercial launches and we’re establishing the ground systems development and operations program from what was the Constellation program. We’ve got a path forward and now we have to execute and deliver on what we said. We have told NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier and everybody else that we will be ready; we will deliver a quality product on time and within budget to support that first launch of the vehicle.
Which date are you working toward for Orion and Space Launch System?
We will definitely be ready to support the 2017 launch. Obviously we are going to try to bring it in sooner than that.
Among the most visible part of KSC’s transformation is the work at launch pad 39B. What’s been done out there?
We’ve made tremendous progress, with the removal of all the shuttle infrastructure, the replacement of the copper wire with fiber optics, the upgrades to the propellant systems, the digital control system, the state-of-art lightning protection system and so on. Our goal is to truly make that a multiuser launch pad so that will support more than just the heavy-lift rocket with a crew on it.
The KSC work force has had the advantage of seeing tangible rewards for its work by having launches over all these years. What’s it like now when the payoff is so far down the road?
We want to see smoke and fire from the Kennedy Space Center, preferably on a rocket going uphill. We want to enable that as quickly as we can and part of that is enabling commercial space. We want to ensure that commercial space out at the Kennedy Space Center is viable. Some of that is going to be processing of vehicles that may launch out at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station side, but we want to have that work here. We also want to enable Launch Complex 39 to support commercial operations.
Are you envisioning just one company using the launch pad?
We’re talking to a number of companies.
But in the end, will one be selected?
No, not necessarily. If it’s multiuse, that’s multicompany — government and commercial, maybe more than one commercial company. It all depends on how we set up the architecture. It doesn’t mean exclusive use. It can mean shared use. That’s a huge complex out there and we have multiple areas where we can process vehicles.
How are you handling this transition where KSC, to some extent, is becoming a landlord? I imagine you’ve got a lot more lawyers now.
First off, we have a lot of excess capacity with the retirement of the shuttle and we cannot afford to maintain all those facilities. Some facilities shouldn’t be maintained. They’re old enough it makes more sense to just get rid of them. But there are others that can be used for future operations, and if we have no use for them, to find someone else who is willing to take over the maintenance and operation of that facility — and bring work here that supports space operations. It’s the right thing to do.
Do you have a role model for what you envision KSC becoming?
It’s not any one model. We’re trying to pick the best of all worlds to get to where we need to be. My immediate goal is to ensure that we enable the commercial operations and that we enable and make ready for the launching of our heavy-lift rocket that will allow us to explore.
As the owner of these facilities, are you going to be collecting rent? Will that one day supplement whatever government funding NASA receives?
There are various agreements that we can use. If we have a facility that NASA is using and a commercial company wants to use it they have to pay rent to use it. But there are various models and it depends on what the model is and whether the facility is totally used in whole, 365 days a year, by a company, or if it’s used jointly between more than one company, or if it’s government and commercial within that one facility, such as the launch pad. There are a lot of different models — and we have to meet all the government regulations on how we charge and how we use these facilities. There is a lot of legislation that governs how they’re used also.
What’s the biggest issue you’re facing now?
I think the No. 1 issue is when we have real and personal property that we don’t have a use for but that there is a commercial company that does have a use for it, how do we get that facility or that property to that company. It has to be done fairly. You cannot show favoritism to any one company. It has to be priced properly. It’s a huge challenge to meet all the requirements and regulations.
So, regulatory and legal issues?
Yes, but it’s much easier going through a state entity, such as Space Florida. For example, we generated a use agreement for Space Florida to take over the maintenance and operations of Orbital Processing Facility Bay 3 and relieve NASA of any costs associated with it and allow them to bring in a commercial company to operate out of there. That makes a lot of sense. But there are multiple agreements and it depends on what exactly you’re doing.
Is the hard part of this transformation over?
A hard part is over, but the hard parts are not over. We still have a tremendous amount that we need to make happen in order to be successful. By no means are we finished.