NASA signals openness to change with new Solar System exploration hire

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has found a new leader for its Solar System exploration program, and the choice of Bobby Braun signals a willingness to adapt to the changing world of aerospace.

Braun, an engineer who specializes in cutting-edge technology, will join the NASA laboratory from the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he served as dean.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or JPL) has led NASA’s efforts to explore the Solar System with uncrewed spacecraft from the beginning.

“JPL has always been a special place to me,” Braun said in an interview. “It is the center of our nation’s planetary exploration efforts, with flagship missions that have rewritten our textbooks.” Those missions have included the Voyager excursions through and beyond the Solar System, dedicated probes to Jupiter and Saturn, and multiple landings on Mars.

JPL’s preeminence as the world leader in planetary probes is not in doubt, but several threats—such budget pressures and competition from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for missions—may have led center director Michael Watkins to conduct a broad search for a new leader of the lab’s programs for Solar System exploration.

In a Monday memo to JPL employees announcing Braun’s appointment to the position, effective January 15, 2020, Watkins wrote, “Over the past several months, I have conducted a national search for the right leader to carry forward implementation of our present planetary exploration missions and, in concert with the external community, plan the future of this enterprise which is critical to the Lab, NASA, and the nation.”

Braun has experience working with JPL, as well as for NASA—from 2010 to 2011, he served as the NASA Chief Technologist and created what is now the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate. But he also has spent half of his career in academia, so he is attuned to the needs of scientists who propose and lead these exploration missions, and he also has a reputation for working with private spaceflight companies to harness commercial ideas to improve government-led projects.

Eyeing commercial

For example, Braun was heavily involved in setting up a partnership between JPL, NASA, and the rocket company SpaceX to use its Red Dragon proposal for the scientific exploration of Mars. This ultimately did not happen for a number of reasons, including the decision of SpaceX to move on to building the much larger Starship vehicle. But it is an example of Braun working beyond traditional means of Solar System exploration. “Sometimes it takes somebody from the outside to bring organizations together around these kinds of ideas,” Braun said.

As part of Braun’s hiring, JPL will likely undergo a reorganization, according to Watkins’ memo. The lab is conducting a study about merging significant portions of the existing Mars Exploration Directorate into the Solar System Exploration Directorate. This would bring about half of JPL’s exploration activities under Braun’s leadership of Solar System programs. The other half includes Earth science, astrophysics, and work JPL does for other NASA centers.

Braun will have to hit the ground running. The lab’s next major mission, the Mars 2020 rover, is due to launch on July 17. Braun will also superintend work on an ambitious orbital mission to the Jupiter system focused on its icy moon Europa as well as the Psyche mission to a metallic asteroid. Both could launch in the early 2020s depending on budget and work schedules.

Beyond that, Braun said he hopes to further NASA’s efforts to possibly find life elsewhere the Solar System and help ensure that a long-awaited Mars Sample Return mission finally happens.

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