UT Austin’s Watkins Chosen to Lead NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

May 03, 2016

Michael WatkinsMichael Watkins, a UT Austin alumnus and the current director of the university’s Center for Space Research (CSR), has been appointed director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and vice president at the California Institute of Technology.

NASA-JPL, a national research center that specializes in robotic exploration of the solar system, currently has 19 spacecraft and 10 major instruments carrying out planetary, Earth science and space-based astronomy missions.

Watkins is a pioneer in the development and use of gravity data in science applications.

As director of CSR, Watkins has led research teams that study space geodesy, the Earth and its environment and exploration of the solar system. The center develops and uses remote sensing data that is important for understanding the climate, weather forecasting, agriculture, improving models of the Earth’s gravity field and environmental assessments.

“Our Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics is extremely proud of Mike, and we’re excited to see all that he accomplishes in this extraordinary new role,” said Noel Clemens, chair of the department. “His rise to this position of national leadership is a testament to the quality of our engineering faculty and the world-class research conducted at UT Austin.”

Before joining the UT Austin faculty and serving as director of CSR, Watkins spent 22 years at JPL leading some of NASA’s most high-profile missions, including the Mars Curiosity Rover’s operations, the Cassini, Mars Odyssey and Deep Impact probes. He also led the science development for the GRAIL moon-mapping satellites. He last served as as manager of the Science Division and chief scientist for the Engineering and Science Directorate at JPL.

"JPL has such a talented and deeply committed staff," Watkins said in a NASA-JPL press release. "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."

A Texas Engineer who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace engineering from UT Austin, Watkins has a long history of collaborative research with CSR. He has worked with the center on internationally recognized satellite projects such as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), the GRACE Follow-on mission set to launch in 2017 and TOPEX/Poseidon.

Watkins will assume the new position on July 1, 2016.