An interview with my favorite Rocket Scientist – meet Joe Williams

I’ve been fascinated by space ever since I was a kid. I still remember the night when it all began.  My friends and I had pitched our tent in the back yard for a sleep-over and were toasting marshmallows over the barbeque when Mom and Dad called us all inside to watch history happen.  Before our wondering eyes, American Astronauts took their first steps on the moon.  It inspired me, encouraged my love for science and technology, and made me proud to be an American.  It made a difference.

Joe in NBLNow, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m proud to say I know one.  Meet Joe Williams of NASA, my favorite Rocket Scientist.  More than your ‘Average Joe” he’s a husband and father seeking to make a difference in all that he does whether its dancing with his daughters in their dance recital  or in his professional   work, as a “rocket scientist” contributing towards establishing a sustainable and permanent human presence off Earth.

JoeI first met Joe through Twitter (he’s @RikerJoe) and by reading his blog titled Leading Space (one of the best blogs out there if you are a student of leadership like me.) Online conversations evolved into emails then phone calls and this week I even got to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston to meet him along with  some of the team in person – what a treat! 

As part of our ongoing People Making a Difference series, here and on Little Life Stories, I asked Joe a few questions.  Here is what he had to share…

“Be a leader, be a friend, be of service.”  Joe Williams

JKW:  Can you tell me a little bit about what you are up to at NASA these days?

Joe:  My current project is working with our team in determining how NASA’s mission operations in Houston acquires the goods and services it needs to fulfill its role in human spaceflight.  About 85% of NASA’s budget is spent on procuring goods and services from the private sector, and mission operations is no different.  Whether it is Mission Control, our training facilities where we train astronauts, or the people who work in them, we are heavily reliant upon our contractor workforce to accomplish our mission.  With the recent policy shift mandated by the White House for NASA away from the certainties associated with near-term Moon landings and into the uncertainties and ambiguities of new technology development, the task before me is made even more difficult.  What is the near-term role of mission operations?  How do we procure the goods and services we need to fulfill that role?  I love a good challenge, and it’s here!

JKW:  That’s going to take a lot of leadership focus.  Who are some of the leaders you have worked with and been mentored by who inspire you.

Scott PaceJoe:  I’m inspired by Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  A few years ago I served as his Executive Officer for a five-month period while he was an Associate Administrator at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.  Scott has the amazing blend of a strong technical background (his is in physics as is mine), a grasp of the subtleties of space policy, and the ability to formulate and articulate the combination of both in an amazing way.  Scott inspired and encouraged me to stretch myself in many ways.  Two of these in particular are to be comfortable working with leadership at least two levels above my pay grade, which is paying tremendous dividends in my current work.  The second is that we are capable of handling a tremendous volume of work – that the only impediment is our own self-imposed limitations of what we think we are capable of doing.  Scott always smiled when I would report to him something along the following lines: “I’m working two dozen items and I believe you would like to hear the status on six of them.”

JKW:  A key to leadership is understanding what really matters – what ‘matters’ to you?

Joe: I’m rooted in my three core values: learning and discovery,  fairness and respect, and excellence.  NASA’s mission and results align with all three.  Therefore, NASA gives me the opportunity to make a difference directly in creating a sustainable and permanent human presence off Earth.  I feel strongly it is our destiny to eventually leave Earth and settle other places.  It’s part of our heritage as a nation to explore and discover the world and universe around us.

Joe's FamilyFamily is incredibly important to me.  My wonderful wife JoAnn keeps  me grounded so that I never forget what’s important at home, even when I am hyper focused on space exploration and our NASA mission. Together we are creating a better future for our daughters.  She’s an important reason why I can what I do.   On the lighter side – I am a HUGE Texas Longhorns fan.  Burnt Orange is my favorite color especially when cheering for my favorite team.

JKW:  If you had three wishes, what would they be?

Joe:  My three wishes are tied to my three core values:

  1. That everyone can get the education he or she needs to make a difference;
  2. That we can treat each other with fairness and respect; and
  3. That each of us will demand excellence from ourselves and from each other.

In the final countdown…

Spending time with great leaders is an “out of this world” experience.  What I learned in my visit to NASA is that The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is more than just about space exploration – it’s a breeding ground for our nation’s leaders, a crucible for innovations of all kinds, and a source of inspiration and pride for Americans everywhere.

NASA history began when John F. Kennedy said: “”I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”  That one goal sparked thousands of innovations, new technologies , new industries, and through them hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs for Americans, yet in a time when we need them more than ever, we may be missing the opportunity to set new and equally aggressive goals.  

Perhaps it’s time to reengage the American spirit with a new goal.  I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,…. Washington…are you listening?  

Thanks for stopping by. Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

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2 Responses to An interview with my favorite Rocket Scientist – meet Joe Williams

  1. Yucca says:

    What a awesome list. I am always on the look for top lists, and your list is great starting point. Lists are very great.

    Well, this is my first visit to your blog! But I admire the precious time and effort you put into it, especially into interesting post you share here!

  2. Thank you for visiting. I hope you will come back again. Have a great week.

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