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Q&A with Robert D. Cabana (NASA Associate Administrator)

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

ERC Robotic Assistant
ERC Robotic Assistant

Available 24/7, virtual author of numerous publications on

Robert D. Cabana was a guest at the European Rover Challenge 2021! Followers on-site and online, could attend to his remote presentation and participate in a dedicated Q&A session!



What do you think about the lack of the “escape system” in Starship?

First off, the Starship that’s being built right now. SpaceX is using that to be the lander – human landing system that is. They’ve won a contract to build that to demonstrate a landing on the Moon with that, but it will not have humans on it when it launches for the NASA mission. It will be in orbit around the Moon and then the orion capsule will fly to the Moon and dock with the lander and land on the Moon, and come back to orion to fly back to Earth so obviously before SpaceX can fly humans from Earth on the Starship they’re going to have to demonstrate reliability to prove that they have a safe vehicle to fly on. That’s a ways down the road right now but from a NASA point of view we are going to ensure that when it is certified to fly as a lander on the Moon and we rendezvous with it, that it’s as safe as we can make it. It will have already demonstrated that it can accomplish its mission without a crew, an uncrewed demonstration of landing on the moon and then a crewed landing. So a lot of work yet to do on that, a long way to go.


Any plans for Europeans to take part in Moon exploration?

Absolutely, so as we go in this cooperative effort this international space station has been a tremendous model for how we operate together in space. You know we have the United States, Canada, Japan the European Space Agency, and all its partners in Russia working together as one up there on the international space station. We’ve had our international astronauts be commanders of the international space station, so as they contribute to the international space station they will also contribute to the gateway and they will also have their astronauts flying on the orion spacecraft to the moon and going down to the lunar surface and being part of the exploration of the Moon. So absolutely our european partners, our partners Canada and Japan are a part of what we are doing and I think the international space station is a tremendous model for how we explore beyond our home planet you know in spite of all our political differences here on Earth. We’re working together as one up there on the ISS, so absolutely.


Lunar ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization)

That’s an absolutely excellent question and I will be honest, I would need to consult with some of my experts in that field and get their thoughts on it. I wouldn’t want to comment and say something that wouldn’t be technically a hundred percent accurate. I can tell you in situ resource utilization as we go back to the moon, I mean taking care of trash is a huge problem but we are doing more than just gathering water for hydrogen and oxygen. We’re looking at the additive manufacturing on the Moon actually using lunar regolith to build shelters on the Moon so we have so much more that we need to learn and that’s part of the reason for the eclipse program as we go to the Moon. We work with our commercial partners to gather this knowledge we will be able to lay out a better plan as we move forward doing this in a sustainable way.


How do you find balance between the innovation of new Space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin while maintaining NASA safety standards?

First off, you know people talk about space. They talk about new space-commercial, space-government, and the truth of the matter is there’s only one space above us all right? And if we were going to be successful we need commercial and government integrated together and we need all our partners working toward solving our problems. Competition drives innovation and we constantly see these new startup companies being more and more innovative doing things in a more cost effective and efficient manner so you know we balance as best we can and how we award our contracts, making sure that they meet our needs in order to be successful as we move forward. It’s a constant iteration as we move forward trying to select the best that we can for what we need to do in the most cost effective and efficient way but I fully support this government-commercial cooperative effort that we have.


Why do we need to go to Mars? Why do we need the space sector?

You know, every dollar that has been spent on the space program has not been spent in space. It’s been spent right here on Earth making life on Earth better. The technology that comes from our exploration constantly improves our life on Earth and helps us solve problems here on Earth, so this technology is critical to our future. When I got selected to be an astronaut I worked for captain John Young. He was chief of the astronaut office and John was one of my heroes. He flew the first Gemini mission with Gus Grissom twice on Gemini twice on Apollo, walked on the Moon, flew the first shuttle mission and then flew the first space lab mission with the shuttle and John used to say “single planet species will not survive”.  At some point in our future there’s going to be an event like the one that took out the dinosaurs and if we are not prepared to live off our planet and be ready for that you know we as a species will not survive. That sounds kind of grim but I do believe that we need to establish a presence in our solar system beyond our home planet. It’s our destiny to explore to continue to learn and as good as robots and rovers are for exploration they still can’t match what we can learn when we send humans, so I truly believe we need to learn to live off the planet Earth. I don’t know how many you guys have watched, I’m kind of a science fiction fan also, and there’s a series called the “The Expanse” and it shows it’s often the future and it shows people living on Earth, living on the Moon, living on Mars, living in the asteroid belt and mining it. To me that’s the future and we’re going to continue to learn to expand and make that happen.


Stuggles of keeping humans alive on Mars

Think about how technology is going to change in the next 10 years and what’s going to be available. I think we got to continue to grow the technologies and to learn and then figure out how we can apply them as we get on some of these challenging conditions. I would also say you know going back to what you said about climate change you know, I think what we do obviously taking care of planet Earth is you know a number one priority for all of us. I’ve had the privilege of looking down on the Rarth from a a couple hundred nautical miles high and it’s amazing. I mean you see the curvature of the Earth about like that with this thin little hazy line over it, that’s our atmosphere that’s all that’s protecting us from that harsh void of space with its ultraviolet radiation and extreme temperatures. And space is the the darkest black that you can possibly imagine, but our home planet Earth it’s just this beautiful blue jewel of a planet and there’s no place close by that matches it that this is nice that we can live on. So we definitely have to take care of it and the NASA science missions that the satellites that are monitoring our Earth that are measuring the climate changes that are measuring you know the atmosphere, that are looking at the oceans… They are critical to our understanding of what’s going on and how our planet is changing and so it’s very important that we focus on our home planet as well and space helps us do that.


Can you think of a moment, when you found human creativity mesmerizing, when finding an out-of-the-box solution?

I believe in the human spirit and our ability to conquer and solve any problem. and we are amazing at what we can do if we focus and work together as a team. It’s awesome and that’s why diversity and inclusion are so important. You know it’s that diversity of thought it’s bringing a team together from different backgrounds diverse backgrounds. Everybody brings something different to the table and to get the best solution to a problem when you have all these different minds and different backgrounds working together you are going to get the best solution. I believe we can solve any problem if we work together in an inclusive environment. There are so many technical advances and it just it boggles the mind and it’s changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up with it andI think it’s incumbent upon all of us to continue to learn and grow even when we get old like me. You got to continue to keep learning and moving forward and staying up with technology. I think what impressed me more if I look back on my career it’s not the technical things that have impressed me or the solutions to the problems it’s what i’ve been able to see from different perspectives you know. As an astronaut, as a pilot and the beauty of space, the beauty of planet Earth. If I could pick one scientific achievement so far that has been absolutely amazing it’s a hubble space telescope – one of my favorite pictures is called the hubble deep field and everybody knows what the big dipper looks like ursa major, and if you take the cup of the big dipper and you put your finger up in the night sky underneath the handle between the cup and the handle and look at your little fingernail  and hubble took a picture, there’s nothing there it’s black no stars nothing and hubble took a picture of an area the size of your little fingernail holding it up like that and what it found were not only hundreds of stars. but hundreds of galaxies. Think about how vast our our universe is and what we have learned from the hubble space telescope and we’re getting ready to launch another telescope now it’s the James Webb space telescope it’s going to be launched on an ariane 5 rocket from french guiana in the middle of december december 17th–18th time frame. James webb is this amazing observatory that’s going to be out in l2 and it is going to see back 13.5 billion years in time 350 million years from the big bang. That’s how far it’s going to be able to see back in in time and this is going to be absolutely amazing what we are going to learn and I look at what has come from kepler and our other planet observatories. We have found not one or two but hundreds of planets that are in the goldilocks zone not too close or too far away from a star that could have an earth-like environment. I just think it’s so important that we continue to learn and and gather knowledge and so I’ll throw up hubble as something that has truly advanced the knowledge of our universe.


What do you think of the idea of space cooperation between the USA and China?

So right now by law we are prohibited from partnering with China in our space exploration efforts but we still share knowledge about our home planet on various science missions and stuff so I’m going to decline to offer a personal opinion on that and I’ll just stick with our current government position which is we’re not partnering right now with China. Could that change in the future? That’s always possible.


What about the ISS? Should we look forward to other international projects like the ISS?

Our goal is to commercialize low Earth orbit to create a commercial economy in low Earth orbit and where we can be one of many customers as opposed to owning and operating the entire laboratory that’s up there and then we can focus on that hard job of exploring beyond our home planet. The international space station it is going to come to the end of its life and right now we’re looking at the 20–30 time frame so we are trying to establish a commercial destination and we’re working with a company axiom to have a commercial module on the space station and eventually they’re gonna have their own commercial space station. Sierra nevada is another company that is looking to have a commercial destination in orbit right now. In establishing this commercial economy we have SpaceX , northrop, grumman and sierra nevada that are on contract to fly cargo to the international space station. We have SpaceX and Boeing flying crews to the international space station. Boeing still has to fly a successful uncewed and crewed test flight before they carry crew but right now the international space station is the only destination so we also want to have a destination for these companies to continue to fly commercially to space and that would be a commercial space station – once the international space station reaches the end of its useful life.


What is your message of the opportunities that the space sector gives us in the next 60 years?

I believe the opportunities are unlimited you know.

I think it’s really interesting if you look anybody that is 21 years old or younger in the world has never known a time that there were not humans living and working in space. Since november of 2000 we have had a permanent crew on the international space station and that’s our future.

We are going to continue to live and explore and go beyond technology continues to change and get better and better, we always are coming up with ways to be more cost effective and efficient, more affordable. I believe that anybody that has an interest in being part of the space program of exploring in space that there is going to be opportunity for them if they apply themselves work hard in school, have a technical degree, have the skills that are necessary to come forward. I go back to having that passion you know. I never dreamed I could be an astronaut when I was a young boy. I held those astronauts in such high esteem they were so much, I thought they were so much better or smarter than than I was I just wanted to fly airplanes and I was fortunate to get to go to the US naval academy, I took a commission in the marine corps and I became a pilot in the marine corps. And then I wanted to be a test pilot and use all the math and engineering I had in school along with flying. I got to become a test pilot and that’s what qualified me to be an astronaut. It was always something that one thing kind of led to another and so I encourage all students all young people to have a goal and and don’t give up when they don’t get it on the first try but make sure that you’re doing something that you’re passionate about that you really believe in and it’s going to make life so much better and so much easier and it’ll really be fun.


How can we ensure equal international playing field in the next couple of decades?

We are doing very well in the US bringing our international partners in and more and more nations have signed the Artemis accords. I think we want to look towards international partnership as we explore. As I said, the space station is an excellent model. I think that when we leave planet Earth and and go beyond and establish this present we need to do it in an international and cooperative manner. A trick question for you is who is the first person to enter the international space station and the answer is there was no first person. When it came time to enter the hatch on that first space station assembly mission I pulled my crewmate Sergey Kriekelov a russian cosmonaut up alongside me and if you look at the pictures Sergey and I entered all the hatches side by side. I felt that as an international spacestation we we needed to enter as an international crew so I had the honor of being the first american and he was the first russian to enter the space station but there was no first person and I think as we move forward you know that’s what we need to do continue to work in that cooperative manner.


Do you remember your very first thoughts and emotions on your first space mission, and could you compare them to your last?

I just wanted to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. I was really focused on my job and I’ll never forget that ride on that rocketship going up it is just a sense of speed and acceleration, you’re being pushed back in your seat and it’s harder to breathe and it just gets up and goes and when the engines shut off at about seven and a half minutes about a minute before the engine shot you’re being pushed back in your seat at a 3g acceleration. It’s hard to breathe and when the engines shut you come forward in your seat it feels like you stopped but you just stopped accelerating you’re going 17 000 5 miles an hour and uh five and a half miles a second and I looked out the window. At that point you’re about 65 nautical miles above the Earth and you continue to coast out to your apogee the high point of your orbit. Seeing the curvature of the Earth was just amazing and on that first flight anytime I had any spare time at all I just stuff my nose up to the window and and made a memory in it. I just remember this beautiful Earth, how privileged we are you know to be able to live on it. My last fight it was more of the same and I didn’t know for sure it was my last flight but I kind of feared it was but I think I never got tired of looking at the Earth any time I had any spare time at all it just it’s absolutely beautiful. Then I spent a lot of time doing that but what I will always remember is how well that mission went from start to finish and and to be able to lay the cornerstone for the international space station, this huge international cooperative effort that has been so phenomenally successful on orbit… I had great pride in my crew and what we had accomplished and I will never forget that sense of accomplishment and that pride in my team and what we were able to do. I’m still part of what I think is the most amazing team anywhere – NASA. I’m extremely proud and privileged to be a part of it and I look forward to continued success of our space program.

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