From McDonald's To NASA: An Interview With Gabe Gabrielle
Aditya Tripathi | Oct 21, 2019
George ‘Gabe’ Gabrielle is the former Director of Engineering for the US Air Force’s Special Operations Command as well as an engineer at Kennedy Space Center for NASA where he was a member of NASA’s Speakers Bureau for 10 years. Having visited more than 500 schools across America, Brazil, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Trinidad, Qatar, England, Singapore, and Australia, Gabe likes interacting with students about space and science. From struggling in his school days to working for NASA, Gabe’s journey to fame is truly inspirational. He came to NIT Rourkela to give a ‘Space Talk’ arranged by Planck Society in BBA (Bhubaneswar Behera Auditorium) on 19th October 2019,. Monday Morning caught up with him in the backdrop of his room in the guest house for a detailed interview. Here is an excerpt from the same-
Monday Morning: When did you see a shuttle launch for the first time in your life? How was the experience?
George ‘Gabe’ Gabrielle: The first time I saw a satellite was the first shuttle launch in 1981. I was on a beach in Florida and it was the most amazing thing that I have ever seen. I showed you a movie about a shuttle launch in the talk today, although I cannot explain much about the feeling, I can talk about the sound; the sound is unbelievable, it is kind of a banging and clanging sound which you cannot describe much about but once you hear it you will never forget it.
In picture: First launch of the Space shuttle from Kennedy Space centre in 1981.
MM: At what stage of your life did you decide that you wanted to join the space program?
Gabe: The day I watched that shuttle launch in 1981, I decided that I wanted to join the space program. I was in the Air force then, so I had to wait till I got out of the Air force which was about 10 years later. Once I got out of the Air force, the only question in my head was how could I get a job in the Kennedy Space Centre and that’s how I got into the space program.
MM: How were you as a student in school?
Gabe: I did terrible in school; I like to learn by doing things and not reading about them. I struggled throughout my school days, I could do well if I applied myself but I just didn’t want to. So I always did just enough to get me by, but once I went to university, I realized that I needed to have a nice GPA. If I could do it all over again, I would do it a bit differently and put in the effort through my school life and see how it goes.
MM: Your journey from working at McDonald's to NASA is well known, what are the other jobs that you had done before joining the Air force?
Gabe: I worked at McDonald’s when I was in high school and as soon as I was 18, I joined the Air force. So, I joined the Air force just after graduating from high school as soon as I was eligible to do so.
MM: Have you ever been to space? And given an opportunity, would you like to go to space?
Gabe: I’ve never been to space but given an opportunity, I’ll go right now. If someone says I can go to space, I’ll leave right now.
MM: How did you join the Kennedy Space centre? And how has the experience been?
Gabe: I joined the Kennedy Space centre because I wanted to get into the space program and I had a friend of mine who was working at NASA. The Kennedy Space centre is right next to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and since I had been to the air force station I knew I could get into the Kennedy space centre with a job which was similar to the job that I did in the Air force. I just called my friend and asked him for a job and on being asked what I could do; I said ‘I can do anything.’ But I needed to have a specific skill set, so my engineering degree helped me get into the Kennedy Space Center. It was much better than I ever imagined. Everything is so magical; there is no day when I don’t go there and no minute when I'm not thankful for the exciting experience.
MM: What exactly is your role at the Kennedy Space Center?
Gabe: I was a Civil Structural Engineer but I didn’t sit in the design section like most engineers do. I was assigned specific areas to monitor as a programmer. I was responsible for things like bridges, roads, elevators, environmental issues and some air conditioning systems. For Example, Space hardware isn’t made at Kennedy space centre and it has to come from some other place. As a result, having bridges which open up to pass such hardware transported via ships is essential and if there is any fault in this system then my role was to go to the bridge and talk to the bridge vendor and try to find a solution to the problem. Then based on how critical it is to the launch, my role was to give it a priority for funding.
MM: How long have you been working for NASA and how has the experience been working at the Kennedy space centre?
Gabe: I was there at NASA for 17 years, for the last 4 years I’ve just been speaking and haven’t been out there as a worker. The daily adventure at NASA is great; even if a ship isn’t going into space, it is being prepared to go into space. To me every day is interesting at the Kennedy Space Center, I never go out there thinking that it’s just another day; I always want to see something new and learn every single day. The job that I had there was very cool because everything there had a roof as a result everywhere there was an air conditioning system. Besides, all these buildings that you go into have something related to space on every wall, every hallway and every single room. As a result, everywhere you go, you are surrounded by this magical environment which keeps your mind in space.
MM: Do you believe in life on another planet?
Gabe: Oh Yes. There are hundreds of thousands of galaxies and there are billions of planets, so it’s impossible to imagine that life is not possible anywhere else.
MM: What is it like travelling around and talking to young students about NASA and space?
Gabe: It’s the most fun thing I have ever done. I enjoy interacting with students, it’s only a year ago that I started going to universities before that it was mainly younger kids. I try to teach about life and when you have reached a certain stage of your life, you already have pre-formed ideas so for students in universities I’ve to not only make them learn something but I also have to make you unlearn things that you already know. Hence, it is very difficult to bring in such changes in the life of teenagers.
MM: What was your biggest takeaway from being a member of the Kennedy space centre's disability awareness and action working group (DAAWG)?
Gabe: My biggest take away from that was seeing differently-abled (not disabled) people doing everything irrespective of whether they were blind, deaf or physically miserable. It reminded me to be very thankful that I didn’t have to deal with such stuff and my problems compared to them were very small and it worked as a huge motivation for me.
MM: How important is confidence and persistence in achieving dreams as big as NASA?
Gabe: I think they are critical, without confidence you can’t be successful in anything. As I mentioned in the presentation, the key is to go slow and build it. It won’t happen with just flipping of a switch, it takes a lot of effort to build self- confidence and very few people have it. You should try to build your confidence slowly and eventually get to a point in life when you think you can do anything, once you reach that stage in life, you will never have stress and you’ll enjoy everything. The only reason people don’t try out things is that they wonder what if they fail? Or what if they don’t do it right? But once you have confidence in yourself, such questions can never pull you down.
MM: Tell us about your experience as a Director of Engineering for the US air force special operations command.
Gabe: That was a very cool experience. When I was in special operations, I was an engineering scientist at special operations. Almost everyone there is mission-oriented and their job is to get behind enemy line and rescue or provide medical assistance to allies or do special attacks on enemy bases but I didn’t do that. My job was to accompany special ops and help them with facilities. For example- If there was a special ops unit in Spain and their roof was leaking then I would be responsible to provide a solution for it. As a result, I went around the world as a part of the special operations and I enjoyed it.
MM: Have you been to India before? What is your take on India and its culture?
Gabe: No, I’ve not been to India before. I always wanted to come but I was a bit uncertain about coming to India because I doubted if I could adjust with the culture here which is very different from that of America. But it has been amazing, as I always say, everybody is the same. I could be talking to you or any other student in any country that I’ve been to whether it is Norway, Germany or Brazil; you are all the same as students. I consider myself a normal Engineer but the warm reception and respect that I'm getting here in India is a humbling experience for me.
MM: Do you follow India’s space research program? If yes, what is your take on it?
Gabe: I’ve been following India’s space mission for five years and I like the space program here. I always encourage students to stay in India’s space program. Some of the smartest and most intelligent people come from India and I believe that if you stay in India and get appropriate backing and funding then India’s space program can be the best in the world.
In picture: Chandrayaan-2 taking off from the Satish Dhawan space centre in Sriharikota
MM: Recently, ISRO’s Vikram lander lost communication at the very last stage. Do you consider Chandrayaan-2 as a successful mission?
Gabe: It is a successful mission. Unfortunately for me, I was trying to follow that mission very closely but because of travelling I lost touch with the updates and it was two days after it didn’t make it that I found that it hadn’t made it. You learn so much from such missions and although it didn’t land successfully, they learnt a lot and next time they would do better.
MM: What according to you is the biggest challenge for space research/engineering at present?
Gabe: In the engineering discipline you are trying to come up with something new and how you do that when you have been accustomed to a certain way for a certain time. According to me, the biggest challenge for space programs at present is speed, we need to go faster. It takes 10 years to go to pluto, one cannot put a person in a spaceship for 10 years. So if we want to go beyond our solar system, we need to find ways to go 10000 times faster than what we go today.
MM: What important skills are important for someone who wants to get into NASA?
Gabe: First of all, you need to be an American citizen to get into NASA. After that NASA is just like any other job, you apply along with thousands of other people who apply for the same position and then NASA selects the one who is the most experienced and qualified. So you need to get enough experience before applying to NASA which can often be very difficult, hence my advice would be to try and get a job which is related to space research in the 7 years that you stay in America to get citizenship so that it adds as an experience when you apply for NASA. Also, being able to write well is extremely important if you want to get selected for NASA.
MM: How satisfied are you with the response that you received from students at NIT Rourkela?
Gabe: The response from students is awesome. I already have 20-30 students from India writing to me in the past couple of days. There were 1200 people today in the auditorium and they were super engaged. I would have loved to stay there with the students for 4-5 hours to talk and take pictures with each one of them but unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. But anyway, it was an amazing experience and I'm very satisfied.
MM: What is your final message for the students of NIT Rourkela?
Gabe: My message to students is always the same, always keep three things in your mind: Do your best, enjoy what you do and believe in yourself. If you do all three of these, you’ll never have to work and you’ll never have stress. You can go through life working hard or you can go through life having fun, either way, you will go through life. But if you have fun, you’ll always do better and you’ll be more successful.
Team MM is extremely grateful to Gabe Gabrielle for this interview and wishes him all the best for all his future endeavours.