Charles Elachi

A key element of innovation is to remember things, most likely, will not work the first time. And if you get discouraged after you have a failure, you'll never be able to innovate.
Charles Elachi

About the Innovator

As a child in a small village in Lebanon, Charles Elachi always enjoyed looking at the stars and wondering what was up there. His mother always made sure he did his homework and he was a good student in science. His studies led him to France and then to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. While earning a doctorate at Caltech might seem like a natural fit for an individual with his background, Elachi admits that his fascination with Hollywood and the chance to see movie stars had as much to do with his decision to come to Caltech as any sense of scientific mission. Elachi's powerful combination of imagination and discipline stayed with him through his studies in engineering, geology and business administration. He joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) staff in 1970 and became its director in May 2001. He also serves as vice president of the California Institute of Technology.

As director of JPL, he oversees a staff with the ability to work out extremely complex problems and see them through to realization. He must provide the vision to teams who may labor for years only to see a project fail in the final "seven minutes of terror." In addition to keeping his teams of a thousand or more focused and positive even through failure, he must succeed under tight budgetary constraints, increased political scrutiny, and keep the public excited about space exploration

Why He Innovates

Charged with designing interplanetary missions for NASA, Charles Elachi and his teams must often provide innovation on demand. In fact, he draws inspiration from his vision of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a modern-day Venice, the center of a civilization whose far-flung fleet brought back eye-opening knowledge of remote destinations. Overseeing complex space exploration projects requires Elachi to address technical, human, and political challenges, each requiring a different kind of innovation. He likens the technical challenge of landing a rover on Mars to hitting a golf ball from California to Saint Andrews in Scotland and getting it straight in a cup that is moving at high speed. For Elachi, the thorny problems posed by each project provide an opportunity, first, to exercise his unbridled imagination and second, to apply meticulous and careful management. No less, they involve the challenge—and ultimate satisfaction—of working in teams with talented, committed individuals who bring together a variety of skills, experiences and viewpoints. Charles Elachi brings passion, optimism, and a sense of fun to a job where he says there is always something new to learn.