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Mars rover Curiosity veteran Michael Watkins to lead NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

A veteran of the Mars rover Curiosity team is set to become the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Michael Watkins, who now leads 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, the day after current director Charles Elachi retires.

“I’m very excited about it,” Watkins said. “I know the lab well and it’s a fantastic opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Watkins spent 22 years at JPL before leaving for the University of Texas last year. At the time, he was 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 others, including the GRAIL mission to map the gravity field of the moon and the GRACE mission to map the gravity field of Earth.

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“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 announcing the decision last week. “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 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 served as project scientist for the Curiosity rover 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. “What made Mike a really good mission manager was that he was as good a scientist as he was an engineer.”

Watkins said he has always been most interested in working at the border between science and engineering, a tricky balancing act that others might prefer to avoid.

“Sometimes people think that engineering is a very linear and boring thing and that science is very creative, and really the two are very similar, and they share a lot of the same thought processes,” Watkins said.

“I like to smear that boundary,” he added. “I like to point out that they’re not so different.”

Watkins has led intensive review or development teams for several missions, including the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the Deep Impact probe that visited comet Tempel 1.

Elachi said the depth and scope of Watkins’ experience should be a key asset in guiding the laboratory, which sends spacecraft all over the solar system.

Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s current project scientist, said Watkins was a decisive speaker and a dynamic conversationalist, as eager to discuss food, wine and history as he was to chat 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.”

Watkins plays tennis and watches sports in his spare time; the UT Austin alumnus said he’s a big fan of the Texas Longhorns. He also enjoys reading mystery novels and books about history, from ancient civilizations to the American Civil War.

Though his interests extend well beyond space science, he still sees a tie-in to his work.

“You’re learning something about thought processes, and about how people think and about how people act,” Watkins said of his interest in history. “That is always useful to you in management, because management is dealing with people.”

Before Watkins moved to Texas, he seemed to be on a trajectory to lead the lab one day, Vasavada said.

“When he left, I wasn’t the only one who thought, ‘Well, you know, that’s too bad for us,’” he said. “So it’s nice to have him back.”

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