JPL Director Announces Departure, Returns to Academia

Juno Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI)

Photo: Getty Images

PASADENA (CNS) - Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Michael Watkins announced today he will step down as director of the pioneering space lab and resume his academic and research career in aerospace and geophysics at Caltech.

Watkins' last day will be Aug. 20, when Deputy Director Larry D. James will become the interim director of the lab, which is a federally funded research and development center managed by Caltech for NASA.

“There is no place in the world like JPL. It has truly been the great joy of my life to dedicate almost three decades to JPL, and to spend the last five years leading the lab is the highest honor,'' Watkins said in a statement.

Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum thanked Watkins for his leadership as director.

“Since 2015, Mike has led JPL with consummate skill and determined dedication, working closely with NASA to ensure continuation of JPL's tradition of setting new scientific and engineering milestones and captivating the world with pathbreaking missions,'' Rosenbaum said in a statement. “Mike has helped to shepherd a new age of exploration that has deepened understanding of the universe and our place within it.''

During Watkins' tenure, JPL launched and operated several missions for NASA including ECOSTRESS, Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, GRACE Follow-On and Sentinel 6 Michael Frelich. Planetary missions he oversaw include the ongoing Juno operation at Jupiter and the launches and landings of the InSight mission and Perserverance rover on Mars.

Watkins has also guided future missions in development, including Europa Clipper to Jupiter's moon, the Mars Sample Return campaign and the VERITAS mission to Venus.

Watkins, an engineer and scientist, worked at JPL for 22 years before becoming director. He served as chief scientist for the laboratory's Engineering and Science Directorate, manager of JPL's Science Division, and manager of its Navigation and Mission Design Section. He was mission manager for the Curiosity rover on Mars and GRACE and GRACE Follow-Up missions measuring Earth's gravity field.

James has served as JPL's deputy director since 2013. In addition to becoming the interim director of JPL, he will also serve as vice president at Caltech until a successor for Watkins is selected. As deputy director, James acted as the lab's chief operations officer, leading day-to-day operations. Prior to that he served 35 years in the U.S. Air Force as commander of the 14th Air Force at Vandenberg AFB and Air Force deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance at the Pentagon.

Rosenbaum has created a search committee to find Watkins' permanent replacement at JPL.

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