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
“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
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
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.