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.