Image above: Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director, listens as Anne Caraccio, a chemical engineer, details the operations of an experimental trash-to-gas reactor under development at Kennedy. Photo credit: NASA
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The director of Kennedy Space Center did his impression of a chemical engineer and a launch controller and it wasn't that bad, according to the two specialists watching over his efforts.
"I just had to say something once and he could put it all together," said Anne Caraccio, who is part of a team developing a reactor to convert trash for deep space missions to usable propellants and other gases. "When I'm training interns or someone who's coming in here for the first time, it usually takes me a couple days. He was just on the ball, he was interested. He would be a good researcher out here."
Bob Cabana, a veteran astronaut now leading Kennedy, recently worked closely with Caraccio and Sam Harris, a Flight Operations engineer in NASA's Launch Services Program, in the first of what Cabana hopes are a series of "reverse mentoring" sessions.
During the two sessions, each lasting about half a day, Cabana acted as a launch director during a Pegasus simulation with Harris and worked on the trash-to-gas reactor with Caraccio.
"It was chaotic," Harris said of the launch simulation, which included several pretend problems for the launch team to work out. Harris had not done such a simulation on console before, where she was the one required to step into conversations and keep everything on track. Cabana, whose career includes time as the Capcom for shuttle flights, offered some advice. "He kept saying, 'Own your net,' and that was what I needed to build my confidence."
Cabana said the sessions told him he was right to expect skilled, excited workers.
"It confirmed what I already knew: that Kennedy has an extremely talented and dedicated workforce that is really enthused about the work they're doing and the direction we're headed," Cabana said.
The goal of the reverse mentoring is to improve communications at the center, Cabana said. The participants also had a chance to talk with Cabana individually about center issues.
"It gives me the opportunity to hear from our folks in a non-threatening environment, to learn their concerns and allow them to ask questions of me," he said. "It also gives me a chance to personally share the vision we have for Kennedy's future to ensure it's getting down to everyone. My intentions are to do whatever I can to improve communications and ensure everyone knows where we're going, and how we're going to get there, and that they understand their role in making us successful."
The lab work included some unexpected complications for Cabana to work with, and Caraccio said he helped make the reactor work a bit better.
"The cooling system for one of our thermal electric coolers overheated because the cooling line failed, so he was head in the reactor, saying, 'This will fix it!'" she said. "He was optimizing our system. I'm glad we had a failure so he could see what research is really like. That's how research goes, it's fun."
Both participants said the nerves they had at first faded quickly.
"I think I was more nervous of the fact that he was an astronaut and head of the astronaut office than that he was the center director," Caraccio said. "I was more impressed that he was an astronaut coming to do hands-on technical work. That's what was making me nervous. But then his personality totally took the nerves away."
The center director didn't spend his day answering emails or letting himself get distracted either, they said.
"He was fully engaged and I really appreciate that," Harris said. "I didn't expect it to be as beneficial an experience as it was. He was just as passionate as we were. He has the same concerns and the hopes we have for the center."
Cabana said his goal is to continue the individual sessions and get the center's senior leadership involved in similar efforts to keep communications open throughout the center.
"Truthfully, I enjoyed sitting on console for a simulated Pegasus launch, and setting up and running an experiment in one of our labs," Cabana said. "It's a lot more fun than going to meetings and dealing with our budget challenges. But mostly, I enjoyed the opportunity to interact one-on-one with some of our future leaders."
"He was letting us see the big picture and we were reminding him of the day-to-day," Harris said. "He wants to see what's real."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center