WASHINGTON — An engineer and scientist who spent more than two decades working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before leaving in 2015 will return in July as its new director, the center announced May 2.

Michael Watkins, currently the director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas, will become the next director of JPL on July 1. He succeeds Charles Elachi, the lab’s director since 2001, who announced last year plans to retire at the end of June.

“Michael’s record of successful mission leadership and impressive management skills quickly distinguished him as a leading candidate for this position,” said Thomas Rosenbaum, president of the California Institute of Technology, the university that operates JPL for NASA. A Caltech-led search committee recommended Watkins for the position, and Rosenbaum concurred.

Watkins worked for 22 years at JPL in technical and management positions before going to the University of Texas, where he had earned degrees in aerospace engineering, in 2015. His work at JPL included serving as mission manager for the Curiosity Mars rover, manager of JPL’s science division and chief scientist for the lab’s engineering and science directorate.

Watkins left JPL a year ago to replace the retiring founding director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas. “I came back to [the University of Texas] Austin because it is a clear world leader in the type of research I conduct and has close connections to NASA and space missions, which is important for me,” he said in an interview published by the university last year.

The opportunity to run JPL, though, led him to decide to return to the Pasadena, California, center after just a year in Texas. “It is a privilege to have this opportunity to lead the laboratory to even greater discoveries,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on campus and across NASA to forge new directions in space exploration and Earth science.”

Unlike NASA’s own field centers, whose directors are appointed by the NASA administrator, the agency had no direct say in Caltech’s decision to select Watkins to run JPL. However, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement he considered Watkins an “outstanding choice” to be JPL’s next director.

“I am confident that he will do an excellent job as he begins a new chapter in the incredible legacy that Caltech and NASA have written together through JPL for generations,” Bolden said of Watkins.

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...