Spaceflight Insider

Michael Watkins named next director of JPL

JPL campus

An aerial view of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in California. Michael Watkins has been appointed the new director of the NASA facility. Photo Credit: JPL

Michael M. Watkins has been appointed the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and vice president of Caltech. Watkins, who is currently the Clare Cockrell Centennial Chair in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, will formally assume his position on July 1, 2016. He replaces Charles Elachi, who will retire on June 30, 2016, and move to the Caltech faculty.

Watkins is an internationally recognized scientist and engineer. He worked at JPL for 22 years where he held leadership roles on many high-profile NASA missions prior to assuming his current position at the University of Texas.

Watkins served as mission manager and mission systems manager for the Mars Curiosity rover and led reviews on development teams for several missions including the Cassini, Mars Odyssey, and Deep Impact spacecraft. He was also the project scientist leading science development for NASA’s GRAIL Moon-mapping satellites, the GRACE Earth science mission, and the GRACE follow-on mission, that is scheduled to launch in 2017.

Watkins last worked at JPL as manager of the Science Division, and chief scientist for the Engineering and Science Directorate.

Michael Watkins. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Michael Watkins. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Michael’s record of successful mission leadership and impressive management skills quickly distinguished him as a leading candidate for this position,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum. “As JPL director, Michael will build upon the laboratory’s outstanding achievements in planetary exploration and Earth science, strengthening the connections between Caltech’s campuses and partnering with NASA to deliver highly complex and nuanced missions.”

Outgoing JPL director Elachi said he has known Watkins for more than 20 years and he highlighted the contributions that Watkins has already made to JPL.

“Mike has played important and varying roles in a number of important JPL areas,” Elachi said, “His intimate knowledge of the lab and staff, combined with his highly diversified set of skills and knowledge base in science and engineering, will serve JPL very well in the years to come.”

A committee made up of Caltech trustees, faculty, senior administrative leaders, and a member of the JPL executive committee conducted an extensive search and recommended Watkins to Caltech’s president.

“President Thomas Rosenbaum and his leadership team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have made an outstanding choice in naming Dr. Michael M. Watkins as the new director of JPL,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement issued on Monday. “I, for one, cannot wait to work with him to advance our Journey to Mars, along with our understanding of our own planet, our universe, and humanity’s place in it.”

Watkins holds a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He has published widely in both science and engineering, contributed to over 100 conference presentations and has served on the boards of many scientific and engineering societies.

“JPL has such a talented and deeply committed staff,” said Watkins. “It is a privilege to have this opportunity to lead the laboratory to even greater discoveries. I look forward to working with my colleagues on campus and across NASA to forge new directions in space exploration and Earth science.”


Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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