Jim Watzin has been named the new director for the agency’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Watzin, whose duties begin Dec. 1, succeeds Jim Green, NASA’s planetary sciences chief who had been the acting Mars director since December 2012.
“Jim brings the right leadership at the right time to the Mars program,” said Green. “His experience and creativity will be instrumental in making the Mars 2020 rover a reality, guiding the success of the missions leading up to it, and bridging the gap from science to the future human exploration of the Red Planet. We’re excited to have him join us.”
Watzin most recently served as the technical director and deputy program executive for Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in Huntsville, Alabama. Among his other duties, he oversaw MDA’s space development and test activities.
“Jim has a demonstrated track record of successfully leading innovative, cost-constrained and schedule-driven scientific space mission developments,” said Green.
Watzin graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In 1980, he earned a master’s degree in aerospace dynamics and control from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland in 1980, where he began a career focused largely on challenging, paradigm-shifting space exploration programs.
With a hands-on background in systems engineering, Watzin has led multiple flight projects and program offices, serving as the NASA program manager for several programs that included Living with a Star, Solar Terrestrial Probes, and Robotic Lunar Exploration.
He was the founder of the Planetary Projects Division at Goddard, where he oversaw the development of the Mars Science Laboratory’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite and mentored the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission formulation teams. MAVEN reached Mars two months ago and has begun studying its upper atmosphere. OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016 to visit an asteroid and bring a sample of it back to Earth.
A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers are on and around the Red Planet, paving the way for future human missions on a Journey to Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover’s data are helping plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. The Mars 2020 rover will seek signs of past life and will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.
The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed more than two years ago, and currently is operating on Mars. The new rover will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover’s landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life.
Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s, so studying Mars helps us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?
“The Mars Exploration Program is one of the most exciting initiatives at NASA,” said Watzin. “I’m looking forward to the challenge and thrilled to have the opportunity to help set the stage for the next decade of exploration.”
Besides MAVEN, Curiosity and Mars 2020, the agency’s Mars Exploration Program also includes the Opportunity rover, the Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
In 2016, a Mars lander mission called InSight will launch to take the first look into the deep interior of Mars. The agency also is participating in the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing “Electra” telecommunication radios to ESA’s 2016 orbiter and a critical element of the astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential — preparing the way for future human spaceflight to Mars.