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JPL Director Transition

August 09, 2021

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: August 9, 2021
Re: JPL Director Transition

It is with regret that I announce that Michael Watkins will step down from his position as Caltech vice president and director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, effective August 20, 2021. Mike will remain on Caltech's faculty as professor of aerospace and geophysics.

Since 2015, Mike has led JPL with consummate skill and determined dedication, working closely with NASA to ensure continuation of JPL's tradition of setting new scientific and engineering milestones and captivating the world with pathbreaking missions. From Voyager's trip into interstellar space, to Cassini's exhilarating final dive into Saturn's rings, to the design, construction, launch, and landing of not one but two rovers on Mars, Mike has helped to shepherd a new age of exploration that has deepened understanding of the universe and our place within it. At the same time that ventures into space have sparked the imaginations of millions of people, curious about what lies beyond, a fleet of instruments and spacecraft aimed at our own planet, including GRACE-FO, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-3), and ECOTRESS have brought new perspectives on and urgency to understanding changes in Earth's climate. Mike's ability to inspire, to bring together colleagues and partners from across the scientific community and private and public agencies, and to navigate unexpected challenges like the pandemic, have been key to JPL's continued success in innovation and discovery.

I have appended Mike's heartfelt note to the JPL community below so that you may read it in its entirety. We respect Mike's decision to step down for personal reasons but will miss his steady leadership, his keen intellect, and his wry sense of humor. We wish him all the best as he turns to focus on the next chapter of his life. General Larry James, deputy director, will serve as interim vice president and JPL director while we conduct an international search for Mike's successor. The search committee will be co-chaired by Caltech trustees David Thompson and Jon Kutler, and will include Caltech trustees, faculty, and staff. I will provide updates as the process unfolds.

Dear JPL Colleagues and Friends,

After over five years as JPL Director, I have decided to return full time to academia and research and step down from the role of director, effective August 20, 2021. I have been discussing this with Tom Rosenbaum for some time and received his full support. Like all of you, the past year provided a unique opportunity to reflect on what's important to each of us and our future. Many of you may recall that I left JPL in 2015 for similar reasons, including a desire to return to research and to establish and maintain work-life balance. This step is the continuation of that earlier journey.

There is no place in the world like JPL. It has truly been the great joy of my life to dedicate almost three decades to JPL, and to spend the last five years leading the Lab has been the highest honor. I treasure above all my interactions with the incredible people who make JPL what it is and who dedicate lifetimes to mission success after mission success. In my time as director, we have experienced the arrival and science mission of Juno; the completion, launch, and science missions of Insight, ECOSTRESS, OCO-3, CAL, GRACE-FO, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, winning the VERITAS mission; and of course the development, launch, and landing of Perseverance along with the success and fun of Ingenuity. Together, we also successfully positioned SWOT, Psyche, and NISAR for launch next year, along with Europa Clipper for launch in 2024, and initiated Mars Sample Return—all of these in addition to maintaining our huge fleet of operating missions from Earth orbit to outside our Solar System.

I am especially grateful for our leadership team both at JPL and campus. Together we have worked to thoughtfully put in place important changes to empower Lab management at all levels, and which we believe will continue to pay dividends in the future as we move toward a more efficient organization that can increase decision velocity and flexibility. We have encouraged movement into and out of the Executive Council (including now my own) to ensure our talent is applied effectively to our key challenges and to avoid stagnation. 

I can't thank every employee enough for helping us get through the pandemic and implement remote work, which will also set the stage for continuing enhanced telework flexibility. I am proud to have moved forward on improved diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at JPL, and look forward to continued significant progress using the momentum we have generated in the past year.

Thank you, all. You are the best. I look forward to your next awe-inspiring successes.