Former NASA chief technologist to lead JPL planetary exploration program

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WASHINGTON — A former NASA chief technologist will be joining the leadership of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the center seeks to restructure its management of planetary missions.

In a Sept. 30 internal memo, Michael Watkins, director of JPL, announced that Bobby Braun would join the lab effective Jan. 15 as a member of its executive team, charged with leading the center’s planetary exploration missions. Braun is currently the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado, and served as NASA’s chief technologist in 2010 and 2011.

“This is the job that I wanted when I was a kid,” Braun said in a Sept. 30 interview. “We’re talking about solar system exploration at JPL. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Braun’s specific responsibilities will depend in part on the outcome of a study Watkins said would be performed this fall to look at merging “significant portions” of the JPL’s Mars Exploration Directorate with its Solar System Exploration Directorate. Watkins said that proposed combination reflected “the increasingly integrated nature of NASA’s Planetary program.”

Braun said he will be involved with, but will not lead, that study, which he expects to be completed prior to formally starting at JPL. “When I get there, the study will be complete and there will be recommendations, and my job will be to implement them,” he said.

Combining part or all of the two directorates, he added, made sense. “That would make the organizational structure more parallel to the structure at NASA Headquarters.”

It would also reflect a change in pace in Mars missions. While JPL has led the development of a regular series of Mars orbiters and landers dating back to the 1990s, there are no Mars missions on the books after the Mars 2020 rover set to launch next summer. While NASA is studying future missions to retrieve samples that Mars 2020 will collect, it has yet to formally approve them.

In addition, NASA expects to cooperate with the European Space Agency on Mars sample return, limiting JPL’s potential contribution to a mission in the mid 2020s to land on Mars, gather the samples and launch them into Mars orbit, where an ESA-built orbiter will collect them for return to Earth.

Braun worked on a number of JPL and other NASA missions during his career, starting at NASA’s Langley Research Center and then the Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Colorado. Since 2017 he has been the dean of Colorado’s engineering school.

“I love the college, and love what I’ve been doing here,” he said, citing milestones that ranged from increasing the number and diversity of engineering students to the recent completion of a new aerospace engineering building.

The opportunity to lead JPL’s planetary science exploration programs, though, was too difficult to resist. “When I got the call from JPL, it lit a fire inside me,” he said, recalling historic JPL missions like Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and the ongoing Curiosity rover on Mars. “An opportunity to make more missions like those possible is something I couldn’t pass up.”