Michael Watkins will resign at director of JPL effective Aug. 20 to become a professor at Caltech, the university that operates JPL for NASA. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — The director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will step down after five years on the job to become a professor at the university that operates the lab.

JPL announced Aug. 9 that Michael Watkins was resigning as director of JPL, effective Aug. 20. He is taking a position as professor of aerospace and geophysics at the California Institute of Technology, the university that operates JPL for NASA.

Watkins worked at JPL for 22 years in a variety of positions, including chief scientist for the lab’s engineering and science directorate and manager of its science division, as well as leadership positions on several Earth and planetary science missions run by JPL. He left JPL in 2015 to become director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin but returned a year later when he was named as director of JPL.

“During his tenure, Mike embodied JPL’s motto, ‘Dare Mighty Things,’ and I wish him all the best in his next endeavor, sharing his understanding of the universe with and helping shape the next generation of scientists and engineers at Caltech,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Watkins didn’t give a reason for leaving at this time other than to take the Caltech professorship. He was just the third director of JPL in the last three decades. Ed Stone ran JPL from 1991 to 2001, and Charles Elachi was director from 2001 to 2016.

Caltech will form a search committee to find a permanent successor for Watkins. In the interim, Larry James, a retired Air Force three-star general who has been deputy director of JPL since 2013, will serve as acting director.

“There is no place in the world like JPL,” Watkins said in a JPL statement about his departure. “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 is the highest honor.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...