October 23, 2006

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Narrator: Space exploration -- a view from the top.

I'm Jane Platt and you're listening to a podcast from JPL -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Our very special guest today is Dr. Charles Elachi. He's the director of JPL since May 2001. And he's being honored as one of America's Best Leaders by US News & World Report and the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Welcome and congratulations.

Elachi: Thank you.

Narrator: You're in excellent company -- you are one of the 20 Best Leader honorees, and the list includes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett, to name a couple of others. How did you feel when you first found out you were being honored in this way?

Well, first, I was surprised, but also I was very honored and delighted for being selected, and I want to emphasize that a person can achieve best leadership if they have the best team in the world. And I think I have been blessed to have the best team in the world that we have here, the people at JPL, which really enabled me to achieve the position or the honor.

Narrator: We have multiple spacecraft operating right now studying, for example, Mars, Saturn, Earth, stars and galaxies. From your view at the top as JPL's director, what are the ingredients that make it all possible? You mentioned the people. What has to happen with the people?

Elachi: There are three things which are critical for any leadership role and for any organization or a person to achieve a leadership role. One, there is a need for having a vision which really excites the people, which creates the passion for people to be looking forward to coming and working every day. And not only to be able to lay out the vision, but also to be able to articulate it regularly and to show people that you're as excited about it as possible. The second ingredient is critical to have an environment where people can achieve their maximum potential. To create a feeling that innovation is encouraged, that people should be pushing the limit, that taking calculated risks is something which should be looked at in a positive way. And to assure the employees that if they take the calculated risks in a thoughtful way and they fail, we will stand behind them, that the management and the leaders of the organization will stand behind them. And finally is to make sure we hire the best employees, have them be trained, being educated, and so on, and I think we have been fortunate at JPL and across NASA that we attract the best and the brightest in the country.

Narrator: There are 5,000 employees at JPL, men, women, all ages, all backgrounds. You yourself were born and raised in Lebanon. What's it like leading such a diverse workforce?

Elachi: Having a diverse workforce -- from diverse backgrounds, diverse education, diverse gender and so on really enriches a place, because people come with different perspectives, come with different ideas. When you are exploring and doing something new that has never been done before, you want thinking out of the box, you want to be thinking from all different directions of the box.

Narrator: You mentioned you encourage out of the box thinking. I mean, JPL has a long history of that kind of thinking. We're coming up on our 70th anniversary of the first rocket tests on the area that is now JPL. What do you think is the legacy that started 70 years ago with those Caltech students and the professor just coming out here and testing what probably people thought was a really wacky idea, of testing a rocket?

Elachi: You know, I think you have a really good point because probably those people 70 years ago, that group of four or five who worked with von Karman at Caltech were considered way out of the box probably at that time. They probably thought they were way on the fringes. But that's what established the legacy for a place like JPL and all the exploration. Clearly, I mean always when you want to advance the scientific field or any field, you need people who are thinkers out of the box. At the same time you have to build on the previous legacy. I mean, I have a favorite saying: ?The most successful people are the people who have their heads in the clouds but their feet are on the ground.? You think out of the box, you have new ideas, you are very innovative, but at the same time you build on the legacy which was done before, because there are lessons from both the good side and the bad side, from successes as well as from failure. And I think here at JPL, we have been really blessed that between NASA and Caltech that I consider the two greatest institutions in the world. We have a history of great leadership.

Narrator: You're probably going to dislike me for this question, but can you rattle off some of the highlights of your stint as director of JPL since May 2001?

Elachi: As you always know, I consider this like when people ask me which one of your two daughters do you favor, and I favor both of them. Almost every day is an exciting day at JPL, every day I consider it as a highlight, because every day we learn something new. Now clearly when we have landings, when we all of a sudden we are making a new discovery, that makes that highlight a little bit higher than the other ones. So if I reflect on the last five years, I mean if we look at the landing of Spirit and Opportunity, that was a great time, not only because of what they accomplished, but because we were coming out from a period where we had a couple of failures, and here there was a lot of tension to show that we were still really capable of doing unbelievable things. When Deep Impact impacted the comet, I mean that was very challenging, something we were doing for the first time, when we put Cassini in orbit around Saturn, when I saw the first images from CloudSat, or the first data coming from CloudSat, and understanding the potential of it, when Grace detected the change in the mass under Sumatra resulting from the earthquake.

Narrator: How do you as a leader help people through those times when it's not a success or when something doesn't go as planned?

When you do exploration, and you are doing things every time for the first time, sooner or later you're going to have setbacks. I personally believe if you don't have any failures, maybe you are not trying hard enough to push the limit. Now we avoid every failure, we do everything possible to avoid it. But also I look at it that sometimes failures are lessons learned so you can improve yourself. So the critical thing to deal with failure is number one for the senior management and the senior leadership to be upfront, and not to point fingers or try to see who to blame. That never crosses my mind, when we had a setback, it never crossed my mind who to blame. The first thing which comes to my mind is okay, let's understand the problem and figure out what's the solution. And the other one which is very critical when things are very challenging and rough is to stay calm so you can be very thoughtful about what you're going to be doing. If you start panicking, then you lose your focus.

Narrator: So what are the major goals for the future for JPL?

Elachi: We have 16 spacecraft across the solar system. So if I extrapolate for the future, I have no doubt that by late next decade, let's say, we will have permanent scientific stations on Mars, be it orbiters or landers, and we'll be conducting science like we do in Antarctica, we'll be laying out the groundwork for human exploration, bringing routinely samples from across the solar system, we will have probably balloons on the atmosphere of Titan, landers on Europa. So effectively we will have presence at almost every body of our solar system. And beyond that, we will be at the stage where we will be actually taking regularly family portraits of the neighboring few thousand stars, and seeing are there planets around them, are there planets similar to Earth? Understanding how the Universe has evolved, I think, and how galaxies have formed, how planets have formed, are there gravitational waves. The other aspect is applying those routinely to life on Earth so we can use it to better our lives, such as being able to assess areas of high risk for earthquakes, understanding what's happening in the atmospheric chemistry, to see is there global warming and how do we address global warming.

Narrator: All right, well thank you very much and congratulations.

Elachi: Thank you very much, Jane, and the congratulations should be for everybody at JPL.

Narrator: That's Dr. Charles Elachi, director of JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech. More information on the America's Best Leader awards at http://www.usnews.com . More info on JPL and its missions is at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov . Thanks for joining us for this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.