In a way, Neel Kashkari's job has always been to keep it together.
Today he's known as the 35-year-old whiz kid appointed czar of the Treasury Department's $700 billion financial bailout. But in a past life, he was a young engineer working on the James Webb Space Telescope, planned as the even-more-intricate successor to the iconic Hubble.
Even then, Kashkari's job was about maintaining stability and confidence.
His work for NASA contractor TRW Inc. — helping create a key latch — was meant to keep the telescope from shaking apart in the "mini-earthquakes" it would endure in orbit, said his former supervisor, Scott Texter. Using pioneering techniques, Kashkari rigged up devices in the company's Smart Structures Lab that measured distances to a precision of "an atom or two" and proved that the telescope could remain steady.
"He's a guy who tries to prevent dynamical disturbances, whether they were structural or financial," said Texter, manager of the telescope portion of the project for Northrop Grumman Corp., which acquired the division of TRW that was working on the NASA contract. "I'm not at all surprised that the skills that Neel had ... as an engineer could be well brought to bear. I wish we had more engineers in Congress."
To many Americans, it might seem that the young man with the shaved head, dense, dark eyebrows and intense, brown-eyed stare is coming out of nowhere — or that someone barely six years out of business school may not be equipped to handle a sum comparable to the cost so far of the Iraq War. But he is part of a domestic finance team at Treasury that has been working 18-hour, Diet Coke-fueled days for months behind the scenes on the mortgage and securities crisis, and he would tell people they shouldn't be focused on his relative youth.
"I'd say that at the end of the day, what's most important is to have the trust of the secretary, and the president for that matter," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. "... let's also not oversell what I'm doing. You know, Secretary (Henry) Paulson is the guy making the ultimate decisions on where we're going to be deploying this and in what form."
Kashkari called his sister on the way home from work Monday evening to tell her about his new assignment, a responsibility that she said he recognizes as an honor to be earned again and again.
"I realize that he's young compared to other people," said the sister, Dr. Meera Kelley. "He realizes what is at stake here. He realizes that the public has put their trust in this project, which is huge, and that he's going to have to proceed very cautiously and effectively in order to keep the public's trust." But she said his dedication and willingness to seek out guidance make her little brother "an excellent point person" for the daunting project.
Neel Kashkari — his first name can be translated as "blue" but is also an ancient Indian mathematical term for the number 10 trillion — was born in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Stow, south of Cleveland.
His parents, Chaman and Sheila, immigrated from the disputed region of Kashmir in the 1960s for better economic opportunities, their daughter said. Chaman retired from the University of Akron as an engineering professor, and his wife is a pathologist.