Robert Cabana is the director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he manages a team of about 8,600 civil service and contractor employees. He completed his astronaut training in 1986 and has flown four space shuttle missions, notably serving as commander of Endeavour in 1988 on the first space station assembly mission. Cabana spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.
How did your career path lead you to NASA?
When I was five-years old, my mom and I took a trip to D.C. and I distinctly remember seeing the Wright Flyer and Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian. After that, all I ever wanted to do was to fly. I went off to the Naval Academy because I wanted to be a naval aviator, and then I ended up taking a commission in the Marine Corps. After flying in the Marine Corps and becoming a test pilot, I learned NASA was taking applications for the shuttle program. I met all the qualifications and said, “Hey, I can actually do this.” Folks often ask me how someone becomes an astronaut. I tell them, “persistence.” I didn’t get into flight school the first try and I didn’t get into the astronaut program the first try.
The Kennedy Space Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What are some of your aspirations for the next 50 years?
We’re transforming the Kennedy Space Center into a 21st-century launch complex. We want to make it a multi-user space port, where there are government and commercial launches for crew and cargo, for suborbital, orbital and flights of exploration beyond earth. We’re expanding partnerships with commercial companies to utilize excess shuttle capabilities that we no longer need. We’re exploring contract options with SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing to fly our crews to the International Space Station, so we don’t have to rely on our Russian partners. In the meantime, we will continue to meet NASA’s science needs by launching science missions. So it’s a time of transition, but an exciting time. It’s going to be progressive and evolutionary, but the key is that we’re putting the infrastructure in place to make it happen.
How do you engage your employees during the transition from the space shuttle program?
You have to chart a clear course to the future and get the team to buy in to it, be a part of it and give them the responsibility to make it happen. The very first thing I told my team when I came here four years ago was that the shuttle program was going to end. I said that we have to be ready for that transition, and it’s going to be hard. I told my team there’s going be a lot of people who are going to be out of work, and we have to do our best to help find work for them, and help them get through this transition. I think it’s critical to be clear about the path forward.
What leadership techniques do you use to connect with your staff?
I really believe in servant leadership. You have to put the welfare of your people above your own. Good leaders care for their people. Leaders don’t say, “I did it.” They give credit to the team. Leaders also need to get down onto the floor and talk with the people that you work with. Ask them what they’re doing. They want to tell you about the things that they’re working on. You’ll learn more from walking around on the floor than you’ll ever learn sitting in some conference room up on the top floor.
What other leadership qualities are important?
You have to have integrity. Nothing can cause you to lose respect of your people and not be a good leader if you don’t have integrity. They know when you’re not telling the truth. Charting a clear path for the future is essential. And never stop learning. You’ve got to be open to new things. As we grow older change is hard. Learning new things is hard.
How does NASA attract and motivate young scientists and engineers?
I’m so impressed with the new hires who are coming out of college. They have computer skills that are just phenomenal. They have so many tools that we never had. We allow them to use some of those tools. We give them a challenging task, let them learn and give them the opportunity to be innovative. We listen to what they have to say, and are amazed at what they come up with. We’re fortunate at NASA. Young people want to be part of this program. How many people can come to work every day and know that they’re making the difference not just in the future of our nation, but of our planet?
Who are your top leadership role models and what have you learned from them?
I’ve been fortunate to serve under so many good leaders, I would hate to single one out as better than the rest. From my vantage point, what made me respect them and want to follow them, was that they were technically excellent in their field, they excelled at what they did. They challenged me and I didn’t want to let them down. They had integrity and could be trusted. They clearly communicated what they wanted accomplished and held people accountable. They genuinely cared for the people that worked for them, and helped them to be successful.