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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (JA)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
October 27, 2019

A Space on Earth

You may not know it, but from the time you pass through security until the moment you pack up your desk, the Center Operations Directorate (COD) plays a key role in nearly everything you do throughout the workday.

“If you don’t know who does it, it’s probably our job to take care of it,” said Joel Walker, director of COD at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We do snakes, possums, deer, mowing the grass and gardening, mail, deliveries, painting, plumbing, facility maintenance and almost everything in between.”

Walker has been involved in COD since college, when he started as a co-op working on logistics at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as shuttle prepared for its first flight. Now, he oversees the daily operations at the home of human space exploration.

While COD does much of its work behind the scenes, front and center are the facilities, where the Johnson team makes human spaceflight possible. To foster the creativity and innovation necessary for Johnson to lead NASA’s daring human space exploration goals, Walker is focused on using infrastructure and design to foster collaboration.

An example of this success is the 1958 coworking space in Buildings 56/57, which was reimagined to provide multi-purpose meeting rooms that support innovative conversation, team meetings, small retreats and flowing ideas with the ultimate goal of providing a different work environment.

The space has bright green walls, high-top tables and modern furniture—a stark contrast to the typical government building and a point of pride for Walker and COD.

“If all the conference rooms look the same, you have the same meeting,” Walker said. “Everyone knows what chair to sit in, what the pecking order is and when to speak, because you go in and it looks exactly like the last one. Taking people into a different environment changes it up. You have a different chair, a different color, a different shape—it breaks the mold.”

Two of the rooms in the 1958 coworking space located in buildings 56 and 57 on site at JSC.

These collaboration spaces have been a huge success. And while Walker is looking for more opportunities to make collaborative meeting spaces, he is also monitoring industry trends as technology creates more opportunities for employees to take advantage of flexible, shared office spaces.

“In the future, we hope to reduce the amount of traditional office spaces so (that) the question on an employee’s first day won’t be, ‘Where is my desk?’ It will be, ‘Where can I work?’” Walker said. “It’s similar to college, where you have a dorm for personal items, but you get to pick your favorite spot to study. Whether it is the dining hall or the library, you have a whole lot of places to work.”

While these facility strategies are geared toward improving efficiency for the Johnson team, COD is also working to improve the center’s infrastructure so that it’s more resilient against storms. These upgrades would allow programs to be able to continue operations, ensuring mission success, in less-than-ideal conditions.

Tellingly, the center was conceived with storms in mind. Electricity and plumbing run through underground tunnels to protect them from the elements, but COD continues to innovate, increasing requirements for new structures on-site. New buildings will be constructed to withstand 130-mph winds, and a brand-new Emergency Operations Center near the fire station will allow first responders to safely remain at the center during storms, significantly reducing response time in the event of an emergency.

As these changes prepare the center to respond to the environment, COD has also been active advocate in sustaining the environment. All new buildings must be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, and the center’s natural prairie landscape is preserved so that it is hospitable for native wildlife, such as the deer that are often seen frolicking in the grass.

Walker at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Human Health and Performance Laboratory in 2017, a LEED certified building.

“We are ‘off the Earth, for the Earth,’ so we want to make sure that we are also ‘on the Earth, for the Earth,’” Walker said. “We have a unique footprint here in Houston, and want to make sure that we are being good stewards of our space and being a good neighbor to the Houston community.”

These efforts to sustain the environment can be seen all over the center, from the vegetated roof on Building 12 that protects it from harmful ultraviolet rays and increases the lifetime of the roof to the booming prairie chickens in the 400 area of the center.

The chickens were brought to Johnson as a partnership with the Houston Zoo. The species, which is endangered, was having trouble mating at the zoo due to the noise from traffic and flights, but has been very successful at breeding in the prairie environment on-site.

Walker speaking at the grand opening of the Saturn V Rocket Facility in 2007.

When COD isn’t working on facilities or with wildlife, they are part of the center’s evolution for the future. Walker has seen free-range bikes and Flex Friday open-range parking roll out during his time in the directorate, and is open to any idea that can help the Johnson break out of autopilot and contribute to novel and creative ways of doing business.

“We have some stuff in the works,” Walker said. “I’m an early adopter, so I like to try new things and then tweak them to be as productive as can be. We have to progress and make sure we are adapting to and fulfilling the needs of the emerging workforce.”

One thing is for sure—with a visionary like Walker at the helm, Johnson is poised to lead on and off the Earth.

Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center

Joel Walker is director of Center Operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center . This story is part 15 of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find  previous stories on the directors website.

Joel Walker, director of the Center Operations Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Joel Walker, director of the Center Operations Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.