As the dawn of a new age emerges at Kennedy Space Center, the horizon glows with the potential of ambitious enterprises and the promise of catalytic economic development. At the controls is NASA’s Col. Robert D. Cabana.
Having made history throughout its 51 years, NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Merritt Island finds itself once again at the forefront of a burgeoning new industry. Led by Col. Robert D. Cabana, a former astronaut and commander of two shuttle missions, the iconic KSC has had to navigate budget shortfalls and the retirement of the shuttle program.
Now it’s ready for take-off.
A potent formula of resiliency mixed with the “Right Stuff,” has KSC in the pilot’s seat and on course to keep making history—this time in the emerging $200 billion space commercialization industry.
Its workforce is up to the challenge. Cabana, meanwhile, is firmly at the controls.
“I just finished re-reading Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis,” Cabana says of the book published in 1953. “ … Reading it now after a career of aviation, one of the things that it brought home to me—and I’ve been saying it all along—are the parallels between early commercial aviation and early commercial space. And, when you look at how things were back in the late 1920s and early 1930s with aviation, I believe that’s where we are with the commercial space capability now.”
Cabana believes the vision and passion of today’s employees and contractors (nearly 8,000) at KSC, like their space missions, extend beyond the horizon.
“After the retirement of the shuttle, a little over two years ago, we had significant unused capability here at KSC,” he reflects. “Not all of it was required to support our primary mission of Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion. We looked at our infrastructure and basically had three options: We cannot afford to maintain it any longer so we can let it sit and deteriorate, we can tear it down and get it off our books that way, or we can utilize it to help enable those commercial operations that we need as we move forward.
“And that’s the path we chose. What I tell the team here is: How often in your career, in your lifetime, do you have the opportunity to define what you want your future to be? And we sat back and rather than responding to what happened to us, we planned. Even before the shuttle flew its last mission, we were looking forward to ‘how do we transition to the future?’ How do we become this multi-user spaceport in the 21st century for commercial and government crew and cargo to and from lower Earth orbit and beyond?
“And we defined that and laid out an architecture.”
“We went out with requests for information and announcements for proposals to see what companies were interested in taking over these facilities. Through that process we have been able to put a number of excellent partnerships in place through Space Act Agreements. Now this would not have been possible without working with the EDC and the State of Florida through Space Florida, to put these agreements in place,” cites Cabana.
The economic development muscle that ensued with those partnerships is formidable. “The EDC and Space Florida are helping companies with funding to prepare those facilities and make them viable, and also bringing economic incentives,” says Cabana.
The formula is working very well, with some of the matches made in the heavens. The area is fast becoming a hub for aerospace and high-tech companies looking to the future of commercial space travel and proximity to KSC.
“Every agreement that we have is unique, between how it’s written and the company and the facility—and they range from one to two years to 15 years. It all depends on what the facility is, what future needs there might be, what the company is doing with it and how it fits in with our future plans,” explains Cabana.
He mentioned Craig Technologies (CT) as an example: “Here was a logistics depot that was a critical capability for the space shuttle—that we could not continue to maintain and we don’t need it right now, but we may need it in the future. And with a partnership with CT we allowed them to take over operating the facility and utilizing the equipment. It’s a benefit to the community and to NASA. It reduces our cost, maintains critical skills and it provides jobs for the community.”
Other examples Cabana mentioned are PaR Systems, working in Hangar N to provide an NDE (nondestructive test and evaluation) capability at the Cape utilizing equipment and a building that NASA could no longer afford to maintain. Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS Aerospace) signed a lease this summer to take over the Parachute Refurbishment Facility. The company worked closely with the Space Coast EDC, which helped with incentives to bring BRS Aerospace to KSC. The company makes recovery parachutes for airplanes, as well as cargo delivery parachutes and, according to Cabana, it wants to get in the space business by providing chutes for spacecraft.
While KSC already has commercial flights launching to the International Space Station (ISS), a top goal is to once again bring NASA astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil. (Currently, NASA is paying for astronauts to launch from Kazakhstan to the space station.)
To that end, three companies have been developing crewed space vehicles through the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreement initiative: Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp.
“We’re still in the Space Act Phase, where they are meeting milestones in developing this capability, working through the various phases of a program from preliminary design review to critical design review. And we’re getting to the point where we are going to be working towards actually being able to select a contract to design and build a vehicle,” Cabana says.
“Our goal is to have a NASA certified crew transportation system in place by 2017. Any one of those companies I am convinced is capable of being able to provide it, and we’ll get to the best answer in the end.”
NASA has had two commercial companies launch to the ISS. Earlier this year SpaceX docked its Dragon cargo capsule with the ISS, and on September 18 Orbital Sciences launched an Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Va., on its first planned mission there.
When asked why companies should choose KSC, Cabana’s enthusiasm is apparent. “We have an extremely talented workforce,” he comments. “They are capable of the most amazing things if you just point them in the right direction and provide them the tools to get it done. And when you look at the location, for a launch facility, there’s none better. And then you throw in the unused capability that we have that is being made available and the partnerships, the incentives through Space Florida and the EDC, and I can’t imagine why they would want to go anywhere else.”
The whole point of KSC preserving its infrastructure is to allow for future space exploration. NASA has many goals and missions on the books.
“First off, obviously our primary goal is to develop a heavy lift vehicle—rocket and crew vehicle that will enable us to explore beyond lower Earth orbit, eventually putting boots down on Planet Mars. So that’s where NASA’s focus is; it’s on exploration beyond Earth. And this new asteroid retrieval mission, that’s a key part of it,” says Cabana.
The agency’s Asteroid Initiative aims to send a robotic spacecraft out to a near-Earth asteroid, capture it with a “space lasso” and bring it back to an orbit near the Moon, where it can be explored by astronauts. President Obama called on NASA to send a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and then aim for a Mars flight in the 2030s.
And speaking of Mars, this November NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will launch from the Cape aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to explore the Red Planet’s atmosphere, climate history and potential habitability for a full year. “This is a precursor to being able to send humans to Mars,” notes Cabana.
Announced in 2011, the SLS Program will develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle to expand human presence to celestial destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. This launch vehicle will be capable of lifting the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to asteroids, the Moon, Lagrange points and ultimately for missions to Mars.
An uncrewed Orion vehicle is scheduled to launch in September 2014 on a test mission that will carry a human spacecraft farther than any other has gone in 40 years, to an altitude of 3,600 miles, which is 15 times farther than the ISS.
Space missions, exciting for astronauts and crews, are also exciting for the general population. Space tourism is a huge component of this new industry. Suborbital flights, where people are taken 50 miles above the earth and can experience 15 minutes of weightlessness, is part of the commercial space development. “And it will breed more interest in space flight,” adds Cabana. “So what we’re doing here at KSC to enable commercial space operation is, I believe, not only critical to KSC, but critical to our nation’s space program.”
Through its diversification and lack of dependence on one large program, KSC is charting a new course.
“KSC has an outstanding future,” Cabana concludes. “We are moving forward and making it happen. I couldn’t be more excited about what we’re doing and how we’re getting there and I want to recognize my team here for their hard work and dedication through an extremely challenging time. … They make America proud on a daily basis working hard and doing amazing things.”