By Mary O’KEEFE
Recently JPLers (Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees) gathered in the courtyard at the lab to honor their retiring leader, Charles Elachi.
For 15 years Elachi was the leader of this world-renowned laboratory that not only explores space but earth science as well.
Elachi will leave as director of JPL but will not go far. He will assume the duties of professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, where he currently serves as vice president and professor of electrical engineering and planetary science.
During the retirement party several people spoke of Elachi’s leadership. Thomas Rosenbaum, Caltech president, quoted the late Muhammad Ali.
“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Lewis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own,” he quoted.
This statement got Rosenbaum thinking of Elachi’s time at JPL, he said, calling him another indisputable champion in his own right.
“Born and raised in Lebanon, educated in France and the U.S., Charles had traversed the globe on a [journey] of discovery and education,” Rosenbaum said. “At JPL Charles has helped lead a revolution in the understanding of our solar system including our home planet Earth. Charles combined the talents of a practical engineer, brilliant expositor and an inspired explorer.”
“Explorer” was used several times to describe Elachi’s life, even when he was a child.
Blaine Baggett, director for Communications and Education at JPL, described Elachi as someone who was always on a journey of education, to know more and to reach the stars – both in the sky and in Hollywood.
When Elachi looked toward higher education, he could have chosen any college in the world, thanks to his hard work and grades. He chose a university in France and then one day met an American who talked about Caltech. In the 1960s he moved to California to attend Caltech.
He came here for two reasons, Baggett said, because of the great reputation of Caltech and also because it was close to Hollywood. Elachi was a huge cowboy film fan.
“He thought he could see stars walking on the streets all the time,” Baggett said.
Elachi began his JPL career in 1970. Since he arrived he has been a researcher and science investigator on numerous space exploration missions, has authored over 230 publications in the fields of active microwave remote sensing and electromagnetic theory and he holds several patents in those fields. His awards throughout his career are numerous including being selected in 2006 as one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
La Cañada Mayor Jonathan Curtis was on hand to congratulate Elachi on his career and to wish him well. He quoted Neil Armstrong when Armstrong first stepped on the Moon: “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“The reason [that quote] came to me was because under your leadership there has been so many steps taken here at JPL that have resulted in not only one leap but many leaps for mankind,” Curtis said.
Adam Steltzner, JPL Mars 2020 chief engineer, added his take on what Elachi has meant to JPL.
“For 15 years he has led us into what I personally think is a new era at JPL. He has certainly revitalized our exploration and our willingness to pursue profound challenges. If you think about it, Charles has kind of raised a whole generation of JPLers. We came here as engineers, scientists and technicians but I would argue that under Charles’ leadership we have become explorers. Perhaps the nation and the world have more explorers in it today because of [his] time here at the Lab,” Steltzner said.
He praised Elachi for his openness to allow explorers to explore.
“Charles has led us to explore in new and more bold ways and as we have done that we have captured the imagination of a new generation and helped revitalize interest in space and earth science. Perhaps more importantly we ensured the attention of the next generation of explorers,” he said.
Elachi will officially retire at the end of June and Michael M. Watkins will assume the title of director of JPL on July 1. Watkins worked at JPL for 22 years. He is presently at the University of Texas.