Former AEDC vice director takes on senior leadership role with NASA

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

From an early age, Jason Coker’s eyes were on the stars.

“I always wanted to have an opportunity to work at NASA,” he said. “The mission of space and space exploration is something that I’ve always enjoyed since I was a kid. Astronomy and space exploration have always been a fascination.”

The self-described “armchair astronomer” and former Arnold Engineering Development Complex vice director recently achieved his lifelong goal. Jan. 15 marked Coker’s first day on the job as director of NASA’s Space Environments Testing Management Office.

“I’m certainly excited and humbled to have this opportunity,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to this next phase of my career.”

Those in the NASA Space Environments Testing Management Office, or SETMO, are the stewards and sustainers of an approximately $3 billion portfolio of 45 aerospace facilities. The office provides the funding and infrastructure investment guidance necessary to operate these NASA facilities across nine NASA centers.

As SETMO director, Coker will work out of NASA Headquarters. Part of his time will be spent teleworking from his home office, but a significant portion of Coker’s job will involve traveling to the nine centers where the test infrastructure overseen by SETMO resides. His work will include reviewing test capital, engaging with senior leadership to collect data and developing strategic plans to maintain, sustain and develop key assets.

“My job will be working both with the centers and the program offices to strategically align the infrastructure and prepare NASA for the future for testing,” Coker said.

Coker was appointed to the Senior Executive Service in his new role, a civil service classification for federal government employees essentially equivalent to that of general officer in the U.S. military.

Coker served as AEDC vice director from December 2019 through mid-January. In this leadership role, he worked to support and serve those working across AEDC, explored ways to increase organizational efficiency and helped ensure the maintenance of facilities.

Prior to joining the team at AEDC, Coker amassed more than 20 years of ground test experience, serving in multiple leadership roles from team lead to squadron director. Before beginning his civil service career in the late 1990s, Coker spent a decade in the Department of Defense industry supporting development test and evaluation for numerous weapons programs across the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency.

He also served in the Office of the Security of Defense, Acquisition Technology & Logistics as assistant deputy director of the Test Resource Management Center and was the deputy division director for Space and Missile Defense Policy, Joint Staff J5, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Like AEDC, the work of the SETMO boils down to risk reduction. The office endeavors to optimize test facility availability and performance to accurately simulate launch, flight and atmospheric conditions to protect people and equipment.

SETMO works with NASA centers and mission directorates to strategically posture and maximize the agency’s ground test infrastructure for the future. Resultant actions could include the development of new capabilities and the divestment in capabilities that are no longer key to NASA’s mission.

“We’ll be doing a lot of the same and similar things that we do at Arnold in the way of managing our infrastructure and preparing it for the priorities as outlined by NASA leadership to ensure NASA will have the test capabilities necessary to reduce risk and ensure mission success,” Coker said.

Much of the test infrastructure in the SETMO capability portfolio is similar to that found within AEDC test facilities. This includes the high-enthalpy arc heaters at the Ames Research Center in California, the thermal vacuum chambers at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Space Environment Simulator at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Coker said his time at AEDC prepared him greatly for his new role with NASA.

“There is a lot of mission crossover, which prepared me well for the job,” he said. “The experience I had at Arnold, as well as my other ground test experience and experience at the Test Resource Management Center, overseeing these highly-complex test capabilities, really positioned me well for this job. I’m grateful for the many mentors, opportunities and experiences over the years that prepared me for this position.”

Kevin Muckerheide will succeed Coker in the role of AEDC vice director. Muckerheide is expected to step into the post on a full-time basis by the end of March.

Coker has no doubt Muckerheide will also enjoy his time with AEDC, adding he believes the incoming vice director will be successful in his new capacity.

“I’ve told pretty much everybody this – Arnold is about the best place anybody could work,” Coker said. “It has been the capstone of my career to this point. I have loved working at Arnold. The people have just been outstanding, and the mission is truly second to none. It’s been a joy to work at Arnold. I’ll just be frank – this is one of the most difficult jobs of my career to leave, it really is.

“At the same time, because AEDC vice director is a rotational job, it was my responsibility to give others an opportunity to come behind me and experience this great mission and the cultural environment at Arnold. I’m excited Mr. Muckerheide will be coming in behind me. I envy him. He’s going to love this position and love this job. It is truly an opportunity that few get, and I’m fully confident that he’s going to enjoy this opportunity in the same way I have.”

Coker added Muckerheide will likely play a significant role in the growth of AEDC.

“AEDC has $1.5 to $2 billion dollars of sustainment funding that’s coming in over the next five years,” Coker said. “AEDC is standing up that Program Management Office, and he’s going to have plenty of opportunity to help, to contribute and to shape the success of that mission and the future. I wish him all the best. It’s going to be a great opportunity for him to help advance Arnold’s capabilities and missions supporting National Defense Strategy priorities.”

Coker foresees a bright future for AEDC. He said the AEDC mission remains critical to U.S. national security to help ensure the nation continues to prosper in the years ahead.

“Arnold’s a key part of that, so I want to remind everybody that we can’t take for granted the responsibility that we have at AEDC,” Coker said. “Everybody hears the words of how important our mission is, but I’ve been around the DOD for a long time, and I can tell you the mission at AEDC is critical to the success of multiple weapons systems and technologies that are coming up in the future.

“I’m excited about AEDC’s future. There is a lot of growth and good things coming in the next five to 10 years, and I’m looking forward to seeing AEDC’s future success. I’m humbled and privileged to have had an opportunity to serve there, and it is my hope I have left it a little better than when I got there. Best of luck to everyone!”