Eating in the NASA Cafeteria

In my peripatetic ways, I have become a connoisseur of the cafeterias at almost all the NASA installations.  In some places there are great restaurants just outside the gates, but I’m cheap and the NASA cafeteria is almost always good basic food at a reasonable price. 

My absolute favorite NASA cafeteria is, or rather was, the White Sands Test Facility cafeteria.  Since I grew up in New Mexico, I really like the regional food and the WSTF cafeteria had the best.  I say ‘had’ because the operation there has changed.  For a long period they had nobody to run the cafeteria and now they have a new operator that I need to test.  I’ll give you an update after my next visit there.

The cafeteria at NASA HQ is one of the best buffets that I know of.  Very eclectic from oriental food to corned beef and cabbage.  Huge salad bar.  Also in the same building they have a small short order grill with very interesting sandwich wraps.

At MSFC they have down home cooking as you might expect in Alabama.  If you like beans and cornbread, greens, or other southern comfort food, go there.  Although, surprisingly, the GRC cafeteria runs a close race for comfort food. They have the best meatloaf of all the NASA cafeterias (and some of the other places make awful meatloaf. I think I’ve tried them all).

The best breakfast award goes to the JPL cafeteria.  They have short order cooks at the grill that make omelettes to order with a wide variety of fresh California produce to spice them up. 

I got the best seafood of any NASA cafeteria at Langley.  Must be because they can get it fresh in the local area.

Dryden serves really good soup — a plus for a place in the desert!

Ames gets the runner up award for the best view:  you can look out the windows at the huge wind tunnels and think about the glory days of aviation research there.  Nowadays Ames is all about computers but somehow the view of a room full of electronics just doesn’t compare with those magnificent wind tunnels.

The best view award goes to the KSC cafeteria at Launch Complex 39.  There are a lot of cafeterias at KSC and they serve great food, but for the view go eat breakfast at LC-39.  The big picture windows face east and you can watch the sun rise over the launch pads.  Wow.  Not to be missed.

And JSC?  Well, it used to be better.  There was a change in management and they went from good basic home food to foo-foo food with fancy names and servers that wear tall chefs hats (always a bad sign) — and the prices went way up.  Hmmm.

But there is the real story apart from the food and prices.  Going to the cafeteria is a place to meet people.  Where else can you go to rub elbows with astronauts, flight directors, program managers, and real rocket scientists?  One table that I pass by almost every day has a rolling seminar in aircraft flight control.  When I was a young flight controller, I was able to sit at the table with the senior Flight Directors and learn the business first hand. 

Now I go to the cafeteria to escape from the office.  If I brown bag it to the office, inevitably the phone rings with some urgent problem and lunch is over before it begins.  Going to the cafeteria gives a respite in the middle of the day. 

But the funniest thing is how much “work” gets done in the cafeteria over lunch.  People that are not on my calendar just run into me in the cafeteria and vice versa.  We can have a 3 minute conversation while waiting in the checkout line and nip a critical problem in the bud.  There are young folks who join at my table and we have conversations about avoiding the mistakes I’ve made in my career and other important topics.  Personnel issues can be resolved over chicken and potatoes.  Technical issues get bubbled up over soup and salads to me long before the official communications chain processes the information. 

In short, going to the NASA cafeteria for lunch is often the best part of my day. 

Probably the most interesting thing is that most folks will tell you things that you need to know over pie and coffee that they would never do in a conference room.  Dissenting opinions can be thrashed out, alternatives explored, possibilities mulled over. 

So, if you see me in your NASA cafeteria, stop by.  Say hello and let me know what you are up to.  Some people feel its an imposition, but its not.  Actually, that is the best part of the day. 

14 thoughts on “Eating in the NASA Cafeteria”

  1. I’ve seen you many times at the cafeteria, but I have never stopped to say hello (I don’t want to impose). Thank you for the invitation to do so!

  2. But, the cafeteria at the Wallops Flight Facility has scrapple. You can’t beat that … even in Alabama.

  3. Mmmmmmmmmm – scrapple… Everything but the squeal! Even better with scrambled eggs mixed with diced Virginia ham. DelMarVa dining at it’s finest (minus the blue crab and oysters that is)…

    The JPL cafeteria’s had (and I suppose still have) excellent food. Vast menu choices… It was evident in the fact that back in the late 80’s, the cafeteria just outside of Bldg 230 (Spaceflight Ops Facility) was always busy from the beginning of the workday through cafeteria closure in the afternoon. Is it still this way I wonder??

    But folks, the best coffee was always found in the Houston MCC. Folgers ground… Always fresh because the controllers would go through so much during sims or real-time ops…. And J. Conner would insist that we clean the pots and the coffee grounds baskets of all residues on a daily basis to insure that there was nothing to cause the coffee to become bitter…

  4. A while back the cafeteria at the Goldstone Tracking Station was #1 in my book. They had the usual (not too long) menu but it was the daily special that was the best. It was more like a mom and pop greasy spoon than a facility cafeteria. And since it was contractor subsidized you got out of there for about 2 bucks! But the posted menu did spell “potatoe” with an e.

  5. Speaking of Ames, I’m sure glad to see the back of that McDonalds “restaurant” — it’s now full of tape reels…

    Good point about resolving issues. Although I consider myself a people-person, I like to hide-away in my car at lunch-time, just to get away from it all. One of these days I’ve got to fit a microwave oven in my Toyota to re-heat stuff in winter. 🙂

  6. Your post is actually a very useful one for managers of any organization.

    Casual conversations like these during lunch can often be more productive than business and formal meetings. During such relaxed times, we can get to know and form rapport between people more easily.

    As a result, business relations can grow and real problems if any can come up. People are more open, frank and forthcoming during such casual encounters.

    Managers can take a lesson after reading this post and should try to go more often for casual lunches or dinners with their subordinates. You can develop a good relationship this way that may not be easy to cultivate in the office environment.

    As you have rightly said – having lunch in cafeteria can be the best part of the day (and the most productive one too).

    This is signing off!

  7. I always enjoyed the Goddard cafeterias. I could make the best salads there. Hadda spinach salad there once that I’ve never been able to duplicate.

  8. I agree with Anwar. Often times, we don't truly communicate with each other in meetings because we are afraid of saying the wrong things

  9. Always fresh because the controllers would go through so much during sims or real-time. I enjoyed the Goddard cafeterias.

    commented by at 1/6/2009

  10. I always enjoy reading Wayne Hales’ blog. He puts a very human face on the agency. I think most problems wind up being discussed over dinner somewhere.

  11. Your post is actually a very useful one for managers of any organization.

    Casual conversations like these during lunch can often be more productive than business and formal meetings. During such relaxed times, we can get to know and form rapport between people more easily.

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