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JPL Director, 2001 - printer-icon  Print this page
   
 
Charles Elachi
  Among mission milestones during Charles Elachi's tenure, twin rovers successfully landed on Mars and the Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn.
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Charles Elachi, born April 18, 1947, in Rayak, Lebanon, became JPLís eighth director on May 1, 2001. Elachi received his bachelorís degree in physics from the University of Grenoble, France and the diplome ingenieur from líEcole Polytechnique, Grenoble, before moving to Caltech in 1969. At Caltech, he studied electrical engineering with a focus on electromagnetic theory and completed his doctorate in 1971. He also completed master's degrees in business administration in 1979 and in geology in 1983.

In the spring of 1970, Elachi had interviewed for a summer job with Walter E. Brown Jr. at JPL. Brown, head of JPLís radar section, introduced Elachi to what turned out to be his lifeís work. Brown put Elachi to work on a proposal to send an imaging radar instrument to Venus in order to map beneath the planetís permanent cloud cover. This became the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar proposal and, after a long evolution, the Magellan mission.

Elachiís first radar in space, however, was not aboard Magellan but on Seasat, launched in June 1978. It operated for about 90 days before the power system on the satellite failed. It demonstrated that imaging radars in space could produce useful results, and paved the way for a series of space shuttle-borne successors. The first of these, Shuttle Imaging Radar-A, flown on shuttle Columbia in November 1981, seemed to see irrigation structures beneath the desert surface in Egypt. Elachi led an expedition to Egypt the following year to find out if the radarís subsurface vision had been good; he and accompanying archeologists from the United States and Egypt found that the structures were real. That piece of desert had once been agricultural land. The last shuttle radar flown, the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in 2000, provided a highly accurate digital map of nearly 80 percent of Earthís surface.

Between 1987 and 1993, Elachi was the director of JPLís Space and Earth Science Instruments directorate. He played a major role in keeping robotics research going during the early 1990s, finding funding in the belief that the technology would eventually have great scientific payoff. In 1994, this directorate was merged with the Flight Projects Directorate into the Space and Earth Science Program Directorate, and Elachi was made director of this new organization. After Mars Observerís disappearance in late 1993, Elachi led JPLís effort to formulate a new Mars program. He also initiated planning for what became the New Millennium program.

Throughout this time, Elachi remained involved in the shuttle radars and Magellan as a team member. When an Italian-made radar imager was selected for the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn, NASA selected him as science team leader. The Cassini radar has been gradually imaging the surface of Saturnís largest moon, Titan, since 2005, detecting sand-dune like structures and lakes probably composed of liquid methane.

Caltech president David Baltimore selected Elachi become JPLís eighth director after Ed Stone decided to return to campus in 2000.

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