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JPL's lucky star?

'In a sense, right here in the backyard of the L.A. Times, you have what some of us say is the center of the universe," says Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "We have 19 spacecraft across the solar system right now. For the past decade, our country has had a permanent presence on Mars.

"When we say we're at the center," he continued, "we really mean it in the following sense: JPL is exploring the solar system and doing the telescope work exploring the stars. You have Caltech here, which is the premier organization for astronomy. Look at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena. And if you go back 100 years, the basic understanding of the expanding universe happened because of the telescopes on Mt. Wilson. The Keck Foundation, which funds the Keck telescope in Hawaii, is headquartered in L.A. So really, no other place in the world has contributed more to our understanding of the universe and the solar system than this region within 25 miles of downtown L.A."

Leave aside the slightly alarming suggestion that the universe does have a center, and what you have here is a vintage Elachi soliloquy. Since becoming JPL director in 2001, he has displayed a knack for describing space science in folksy, patriotic and proudly localized phrases -- promising to bring the solar system into Southern California's "backyard," claiming that the successful landings of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004 turned Mars into our "sandbox" and making frequent comparisons of the U.S. space program does to the Age of Exploration.

Elachi's demeanor reflects a job that is at once purely scientific and profoundly political. Of the $17-billion annual NASA budget,JPL gets about a dime on every dollar. The lab is managed by the California Institute of Technology, and its work navigates across academic, governmental and military zones.

Elachi's tenure as director has been marked by a string of successes: the Mars rovers and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the ion-propelled Dawn probe to the asteroid belt, the Spitzer Space Telescope and a raft of Earth-observation missions. It's a record that sharply contrasts with the lab's performance in the 1990s, when radio contact with the Mars Observer and Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2 missions was lost before any of their duties were performed.

Elachi's successful run is up for another test this afternoon, when the Phoenix mission attempts a risky touchdown close to the Martian north pole 150 million miles away.As the lander's name suggests, the project is built on technology resurrected from canceled and lost missions, and the prospect of catastrophe (so far, more than half of all missions to the Red Planet has ended in failure) is always looming.

"You know, people always say, 'Go and take risks,' until there is a failure," Elachi said. "On the Mars rovers, we went out of our way making sure that the public and NASA appreciated that this was a risky endeavor, that we had done everything possible to make it successful, but that it would never be 100% safe."

Mission failures, though, may be less of a challenge for Elachi than politics. JPL's hybrid status makes for some tricky situations, such as the continuing controversy stemming from a 2004 executive order requiring background checks of federal employees to obtain new identification badges. Twenty-eight scientists and engineers at JPL have sued to block the checks. Most striking is a tension within NASA that nobody likes to talk about: the tug of war between manned space travel and robotic exploration, which is JPL's purview.

Elachi, 60, sympathizes with longtime JPL staffers who object to the background checks but says it's "perfectly legitimate" to demand security checks to gain access to federal facilities. Despite a career-long interest in space-based environmental observations of Earth, he is neutral on charges that the Bush administration has sought to discourage NASA research on climate change.

And on the passionate if discrete argument between manned and robotic space exploration, Elachi, who has a background in electrical engineering, takes what he calls the view from "30,000 feet, or 10,000 miles," acknowledging that even the purest science is infused with other motives. "You have to remember that exploration is not only for scientific purposes. You sometimes do exploration for feeling proud as a nation. Or for economic purposes. Or for political purposes. And therefore we need to think about it in that broad sense. Exploration has a spectrum of purposes, so I think there is a role across the board for robots and for humans."

If he's politic, however, Elachi has a tough streak. In his book, "Roving Mars," Steve Squyres, the rover missions' principal investigator, tells an anecdote (which Elachi confirms) in which the JPL director blows up at a NASA official, exclaiming, "I don't listen to paper-pushing Washington bureaucrats."

Elachi also may be braced by a sense that there's been a slight shift in public perceptions about space travel. NASA -- and Washington more broadly -- still proceeds on the "bucks and Buck Rogers" assumption that manned space travel is what really captures the public imagination and ensures continued funding. But for at least the last decade, the glamour of space travel has increasingly been shaped by machine-driven research -- the heart-stopping photos of star formation from space-based telescopes, the stunning close-ups of Saturn's rings and the surface of Titan from the Cassini-Huygens probe and the weird anthropomorphizing of the cute little rovers.

"It's particularly true with young kids," Elachi said. "They're more comfortable with the idea of robots as our agents. For them robots are like humans. So you know, they look at Spirit and Opportunity, and they grew up playing video games, using the Internet, all this sort of thing."

Whether it's luck or skill that has driven his successful run, Elachi has decisively reversed JPL's crisis of confidence caused by the mission failures in the 1990s. Mars is about 15 light-minutes away from Southern California, but this afternoon we'll find out whether his winning streak will continue as the Phoenix lander approaches the Martian north pole.

Tim Cavanaugh is the editor of Web content for The Times' editorial pages.

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