Jet Propulsion Laboratory is kind of a misleading name. NASA’s southern Californian center doesn’t really make rockets or jets or anything propulsive these days. Nope, JPL builds robots that explore the solar system: Curiosity, Voyager, Galileo, GRACE. On July 1, the center’s legacy becomes the responsibility of Michael Watkins.
He’ll be fine. Watkins is a twenty-year NASA veteran who has been mixed up in nearly every important JPL project during that time. And he has only been away from the center for a year–he’s leaving his brief stint as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin to come back. In addition to being director of JPL, he is also vice president of CalTech, where the NASA center shares a campus in Pasadena.
Watkins takes the helm from previous director Charles Elachi as NASA is amping up its ambitions to explore the solar system. And not just with robots. The agency recently announced its intentions to send a crewed mission to Mars. JPL doesn’t typically get too mixed up in astronautics, but its expertise on the red planet will give it a bigger role in this trip.
And that’s not all. JPL is planning robotic journeys to other mysterious nooks, to look for life, and understand the how the planets came to be. But hey, don’t take it from me. Scroll down and let Watkins tell you about it himself.