08/17/2012 07:00:00

Caltech Receives Five-Year JPL Contract from NASA

NASA has signed a new $8.5 billion contract with Caltech, extending the Institute's management of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for an additional five years.

JPL is NASA's only federally funded research and development center. Its history is inextricably linked to Caltech, and the center has never been operated by any other institution.

"Caltech's long and successful partnership with NASA is a great example of a public-private partnership that leverages the strengths of each organization to deliver far-reaching impact," says Jean-Lou Chameau, Caltech's president. "Through this collaboration, Caltech has provided NASA with strong intellectual leadership in the space sciences while also providing future scientists and engineers with outstanding educational experiences."

The JPL-Caltech connection can be traced back to 1936, when a group of Caltech graduate students and assistants in the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (part of what is now the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories, or GALCIT) first began testing rockets under the guidance of aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán. In a dry streambed of the Arroyo Seco, the group fired their first successful rocket engine, ushering in a new era of rocket propulsion research in Southern California.  

In 1943, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was formally founded, using funds from the U.S. Army to expand upon the group's test pits and temporary workshops northwest of Pasadena.  Early research focused on guided missiles and on technologies that would evolve into tools for spaceflight, secure communications, and spacecraft navigation. Shortly after NASA was formed in 1958, JPL became the agency's primary planetary spacecraft center—and has been helping to push the boundaries of space exploration ever since.

Together, JPL and Caltech have played a key role in exploring Earth, the solar system, and beyond. JPL has sent missions to every planet in the solar system—and even to asteroids, distant moons, and comets. Dozens of spacecraft have ventured to other solar system objects and returned pictures of volcanoes, swirling atmospheres, and extraterrestrial storms. Landers and rovers have photographed and analyzed rocks and soil on the martian surface. Today, for example, the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are exploring Mars, and the Juno spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter.

Satellites are also helping scientists study the oceans, atmosphere, and climate of Earth, and space telescopes like Spitzer and NuSTAR are opening a window into the farthest reaches of the cosmos—revealing how stars are born and the nature of black holes. Using space telescopes in conjunction with Earth-based observatories such as the Keck and Palomar Observatories, JPL and Caltech scientists are discovering new planets and probing longstanding cosmic questions such as the origin of the universe and the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

In addition to these and other scientific discoveries, JPL and Caltech engineers have developed new technologies—from communication and navigation systems to microelectronics—that have applications in many fields, including solar energy and medical imagery. 

Caltech brings to the management of JPL technical depth, an understanding of federal operations, and advanced research tools. Caltech also has a long and successful record in the management of large, complex, and innovative projects, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which is managed by Caltech with MIT and is, to date, the most expensive project ever funded by the National Science Foundation.

From the long history of JPL leaders drawn from the ranks of Caltech’s faculty to numerous examples of joint programs and appointments today, JPL's intellectual environment and institutional identity are profoundly shaped by its role as a part of Caltech.

For more information, read NASA's release

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier