Skip to Main Content

Rocket Man Says 'Outer Space was Calling'

Jose Cabanillas’ job fortunes took off in the 1980s after he quit working for a Jacksonville company that turned Toyota Celicas into convertibles. Today,  he helps fly spacecraft to the moon.
Cabanillas is the lead space vehicle systems engineer on the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite Program, or LCROSS, as it’s more commonly known. The LCROSS spacecraft recently smashed into the moon and turned up evidence of water.
“LCROSS is definitely the high point of my career to date,” said Cabanillas, who graduated from UNF in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology, a program no longer offered at the University.  “We are all walking around on air now,” he said following the success of the LCROSS Program. Cabanillas was referring to himself and his colleagues at the Northrup Grumman Corporation in Redondo Beach, Calif., where he currently works.
“The math/engineering foundation and critical-thinking skills that Jose gained at UNF have served the LCROSS program very well, especially during never-before-attempted LCROSS flight maneuvers that were key to delivering 7.2 gigajoules of kinetic energy into the permanently shadowed Cabeus crater at the moon’s south pole,” said Craig Elder, LCROSS spacecraft program manager and Cabanillas’ boss. 7.2 gigajoules, by the way, is a great deal of kinetic energy.  “Jose is one of the most experienced and practical systems engineers in the U.S. aerospace industry and has been a joy to work with. UNF can be proud of their ‘rocket scientist’ alumni.”
The LCROSS project, recently completed, involved crashing the upper stage of an Atlas V rocket into the moon, causing an explosion of material from the surface of a crater. Instruments aboard a satellite analyzed the resulting plume for the presence of ice. The project was exhilarating for Cabanillas.
“After we got past the step we call the Critical Design Review, the lead system engineer left the program and I took over for the rest of the mission,” Cabanillas said. “I worked with the team that actually assembled the satellite, worked to make sure the Atlas launch vehicle, our LCROSS spacecraft and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that was the primary satellite for launch all worked well together. The sheer joy of taking a spacecraft from concept — watching the drawings turn into real hardware, putting it together, launching and flying it in the space of three years — is pretty unique.”
One of Cabanillas’ jobs through the years included orbital analysis, a job in which he determined what it took to put a spacecraft in the correct orbit around the earth and adjusting the orbit if it was required. He worked on several research studies, including the Regan-era defense initiative program often referred to as Star Wars. He was also part of the team that launched the first operational Global Positioning System satellites. “GPS was fun to work on because we knew that it was going to change the world once we got past the testing phase of the program,” Cabanillas said. He also worked on the Space Shuttle program following the Columbia accident in 2003 when the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the deaths of the seven-person crew.
Cabanillas, 52, attended UNF from 1977 to ‘79. “I found the coursework challenging and very practically focused,” said Cabanillas, who lives in Lakewood, Calif., with his wife, Karen. “There was a lot of real practical hands-on education in the program and we were exposed to a broad way of thinking about industrial operations and processes in the real world, not just book education. I got a great education while I was there, and from everything I have seen and read, the school has just gotten better over the years. My sister is also an alum.”
Ever since he was a kid, Cabanillas has been interested in science, rockets and the space program. One of his fondest memories of his days at Orange Park High School in Clay County was touring the Kennedy Space Center with the school’s science club.
Dr. Adam Darm, director of UNF’s former industrial technology program, encouraged Cabanillas to try and get a job in the aerospace industry. Ultimately, with the help of a family friend, Cabanillas was able to obtain employment with an aerospace company in the Los Angeles area.
Does he ever think about those days when he was removing the roofs from Celicas on Talleyrand Avenue in Jacksonville? “I have found I like some variety in what I do,” Cabanillas said.  “And while I was pretty good at customizing cars, it was a pretty limited business. I did have an offer to go to work for a company that was making motor homes. But outer space was calling.”