Michael Watkins to Become New JPL Director

Michael Watkins to Become New JPL Director

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced today that Michael Watkins will succeed Charles Elachi as JPL Director.  Elachi announced last year that he will retire at the end of June.

JPL is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  It is a contractor, not a government facility like NASA’s field centers around the country (Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, etc.)   Still, it is best known for building many of NASA’s planetary exploration spacecraft, such as the Curiosity Mars rover, and NASA refers to it as “NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Watkins was selected to fill the post by the President of Caltech, Thomas Rosenbaum.  Bolden said Rosenbaum made “an outstanding choice” and Watkins is “no stranger to the NASA family.” 

Michael Watkins, incoming Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  Photo credit: JPL

Watkins is currently the Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair in Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater.  He holds a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the university.

He worked at JPL for 22 years on a variety of planetary and earth science missions.  Among them he was the mission manager and mission system manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.  He also worked on Cassini, Mars Odyssey, GRAIL, GRACE and GRACE Follow-on.  His last JPL position was as manager of the Science Division and chief scientist for the Engineering and Science Directorate.

Elachi will retire as JPL Director on June 30 and Watkins assumes the job on July 1. 

Elachi has been director for 15 years and will not be going far.  He will be professor emeritus at Caltech and plans to continue working on JPL missions.

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