Starport celebrates 50 years

Social event involving JSC Employees in the EAA, Gilruth Center. Johnson Space Center, Aug. 21, 1973.
Social event involving JSC Employees in the EAA, Gilruth Center. Johnson Space Center, Aug. 21, 1973.
For five decades, the JSC Exchange/Starport has been there for JSC team members, making their presence known through food and retail services to fitness and recreational activities and social events that bring people together.

Some of Starport’s most memorable milestones are: the ribbon cutting of the new Building 3 Café during 1964 as their first facility; the Exchange Scholarship program initiation in 1965; Building 11 Café and non-food sales addition in 1967; the opening and dedication of the Gilruth Center in 1974; expansions of the Gilruth Center in 1981, 1991 and 2006; and the NASA 50th anniversary celebration at the Galveston Convention Center in 2008. More recent milestones include the end of Shuttle Program tributes and the Starport 50th birthday celebrations .Many moons ago ...

The Exchange, as Starport was previously known, was created in July of 1962 in the days of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), which we know today as the Johnson Space Center. Back then, the center was in its infancy and steadily growing, as was the need for employee services. One of the Exchange’s first orders of business was to contract catered food service, food trucks and vending machines for the scattered buildings that housed JSC employees. Since the Exchange only had one employee, the Exchange Council initiated an Employees Activity Association to plan and organize employee activities.

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Views of the ribbon cutting ceremony to the new half-mile running track at the Gilruth Recreation Center by JSC Director Gerald D. Griffin and Larry Wier, June 20, 1985.
“Since we had no facilities initially and a staff of one, we have come a long way,” said Karen Schmalz, manager, Starport/JSC Exchange. “As one of the first buildings to be completed and populated at JSC in 1964, the Building 3 Cafeteria served three meals a day. It was also open on Saturday mornings for employees and Sunday afternoon for public visitors.”

The JSC community was small with few alternate food and entertainment choices. Employee clubs were a big source of camaraderie with more than 20 clubs in existence, including Barbershop Quartet, Rod and Gun, and Water Skiing. With limited facilities, meetings were held at the Ellington Air Force Base (AFB) Non-commissioned Officer’s Club or at community facilities. Softball leagues were held at Ellington Air Force Base, and bowling leagues met at multiple locations around the city. Christmas dances were held at Sylvan Beach Pavilion and picnics at Galveston County Park.

The Gilruth Center was opened in 1974 and created an avenue for many additional activities including basketball, volleyball and tennis as well as providing the dining and meeting facilities. The Exchange grew to about 150 employees during this time between the two cafeterias and the Gilruth Center and absorbed many of the functions previously provided by volunteers such as ticket sales through the gift shops.During the 80s, softball, tennis and running were hugely popular with employees.

Reception for Soviet visitors at Gilruth Recreation Center, Feb. 13, 1975.
Reception for Soviet visitors at Gilruth Recreation Center, Feb. 13, 1975.
“We had 78 softball teams, monthly fun runs with up to 500 participants and five tennis courts. Public visitor income from souvenir purchases at the retail counters contributed greatly to expansions of the Gilruth in 1981 and 1991,” Schmalz said.

Rebranding and keepin’ up with the times

Schmalz explained that the opening of Space Center Houston in 1994 and 9/11 both presented new challenges for the Exchange as revenue was diverted and external participants became restricted from access to the Gilruth. The Exchange had to then modify operations to focus retail more on employee support and worked with the center to move the Gilruth fencing to allow unbadged access to the Gilruth Center.

During the early 2000s as more awareness was placed on fitness and health, partnerships were developed with JSC contractors to participate in a joint Wellness Program, and the Exchange was rebranded as Starport. Another big change for the Exchange was to move the food services from in-house employees to contract. With the award of the contract in 2004 to Sodexo, a wider variety of food choices were available to employees on a daily basis.

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Gilruth dressing room construction, Oct. 8, 2004.
As the center’s focus on Innovation and Inclusion increased, Starport has provided free lunches annually to support “Innovation Day.” The retirement of shuttle has been yet another transition period for Starport, challenged with how to maintain the same high level of employee activities and services with less revenue. They are prevailing through the tough times by expanding their recreation program and adding youth programs.

“Just this year we have expanded our league offerings to seven leagues including Ultimate Frisbee, dodgeball and kickball and are currently conducting our first summer camp for employee children,” said Shelly Haralson, Starport Program Coordinator.

Leadership and staying in the loop

Attendees enjoyed lunch, snacks and beverages sponsored by Sodexo at Apollo’s 40th anniversary at the NASA 2nd Annual Golf Tournament, June 22, 2009.
Attendees enjoyed lunch, snacks and beverages sponsored by Sodexo at Apollo’s 40th anniversary at the NASA 2nd Annual Golf Tournament, June 22, 2009.
The Starport Manager (Schmalz) and deputy Kerri Knotts are part of the Human Resources Leadership Team, which has given the team great insight into workforce planning with both civil servants and contractors. They also report to the Exchange Council (similar to a Board of Directors) chaired by Natalie Saiz, director of Human Resources, and made up of senior leaders from across NASA and six contractor partner organizations here at JSC.

“This keeps us ‘in the loop’ as far as understanding major changes coming to the center affecting both civil servants and contractors and provides us with a great support system with all the institutional organizations,” Schmalz said.

We also keep the lines of communication open with employees by conducting surveys, holding Customer Appreciation events and responding to every positive or negative comment to learn how to provide better services.

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Starport Spring Festival, 2012.
What the future holds

To keep business rolling, the key is “to maximize employee participation and satisfaction through a wide variety of products, programs and services,” Schmalz said. “We are continually evolving our products and programs to reach as many employees as possible. We also try to help employees understand that what we earn through our business elements is returned back to them through our employee services.”

Starport’s ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for JSC employees and also assist the center in attracting and retaining talented employees.

To find out more about Starport services, visit http://starport.jsc.nasa.gov/

Neesha Hosein
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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