Former NASA mission leader named next director of space research center

Rachel Lew

Former NASA mission leader Michael Watkins will become the next director of the Center for Space Research at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

After working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years and leading teams for many missions, including the Cassini and Curiosity missions, Watkins will assume leadership at the Center for Space Research in July.

“My experience at NASA gave me a very deep understanding of the how space missions are really developed and implemented, which will help us successfully propose new instruments and missions,” Watkins said in an email.

The center focuses on using space-based data to learn about Earth itself, as well as the interior of other planets,according to Watkins.

“The best place to study the Earth as a planet is from space since satellites can observe the entire Earth essentially all day, including over deep jungles and over the ocean, over Antarctica and those places that would be almost impossible to constantly observe from here on the Earth,” Watkins said. “Satellites really provide our best scientific data.”

Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at the center, said the center’s focus can impact research into topics like climate change.

“A lot of what we understand about Earth and how it’s changing comes from space,” Humphreys said. “It’s much better in some cases to research about space than to scratch the surface of the Earth. By gathering data from space satellites, we have data that is useful in the climate debate because those data are stable and span decades of research.”

Humphreys said he believes Watkins’ experience at NASA will benefit the program overall.

“I think he’s going to bring a lot of good connections and a head for finding the right big problems to solve,” Humphreys said.

Noel Clemens, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said Watkins will continue the advancement of the center’s satellite research program and expand into new areas of research.

“We expect Watkins to continue the center’s focus on remote sensing of the Earth from space but also to expand its mission to include planetary missions, increased emphasis on small satellite development and increased collaboration with Earth scientists,” Clemens said in an email.

As the climate continues to change, satellite-based sensing of the Earth will become increasingly important, according to Clemens.

“CSR’s signature satellite program, GRACE, is making important measurements that show the ocean levels are rising, the ice sheets are receding and the magnitude of drought in California,” Clemens said. “When coupled with advanced computer models of the water cycle, the data provided by CSR will help scientists predict how climate change will impact water sources for cities and agriculture.”