Michael Watkins, director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin, will officially take the helm of the Caltech-managed laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge on July 1, a day after current director Charles Elachi retires.
Watkins [pictured above] spent 22 years working at JPL before leaving for the University of Texas last year, a two-decade run that he capped as manager of the lab’s science division and chief scientist for the engineering and science directorate. He also served as mission manager for Curiosity, formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory, and as project manager for several missions, including the GRAIL mission to map the gravity field of the moon and the GRACE mission to map the gravity field of the Earth.
“Mike has a very broad background at JPL, which will certainly help him lead the Lab as it moves forward,” Elachi said in written comments. “It will help him as JPL supports NASA’s Journey to Mars, which includes such missions as Mars 2020, a Mars orbiter and sample return.”
Leading JPL, which made the announcement Monday, means carefully balancing the lab’s overarching science and engineering goals — a skill that Watkins has long managed with enthusiasm and grace, said Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, who previously served as the Curiosity rover’s project scientist while Watkins was mission manager.
“That job of mission manager really puts you at the nexus of science and engineering for the mission,” Grotzinger said, “and what made Mike a really good mission manager was that he was as good a scientist as he was an engineer.”
Watkins has also led intensive review or development teams for several missions, including the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the Deep Impact probe to comet Tempel 1. The depth and scope of his experience at the lab should be a key asset in guiding the laboratory, which sends spacecraft all over the solar system, from Saturn (and soon, Jupiter) to Mars, the moon and Earth.
Elachi said he saw parallels with his own experience before he was named director in 2001.
“My background included work with radar on such missions as Magellan and Cassini, as well as shuttle imaging and other Earth missions,” Elachi wrote. “I believe that wide background helped me to be an effective director of JPL. With Mike, I see the breadth of experience across multiple missions and programs.”
Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s current project scientist, said that Watkins was a decisive speaker and a dynamic conversationalist, as eager to discuss topics such as food, wine and history as he was about science and engineering.
“If there was ever a ‘most interesting man in the world’ at JPL, that’s Mike Watkins,” Vasavada said. “He’s a really interesting, well-rounded person, and just fascinating to talk to.”
Before Watkins moved to Texas, he seemed to be on a trajectory to lead the lab one day, the scientist added.
“When he left, I wasn’t the only one who thought, ‘Well, you know, that’s too bad for us,'” Vasavada said. “So it’s nice to have him back.”
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.