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Fernando Pellerano - Orchestra Conductor to Goddard's ATLAS Project (Part One)
March 25, 2014

[image-51]Name: Fernando Pellerano
Title: Lead Instrument Systems Engineer for the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace Engineer
Organization: Code 592, Instrument/Payload Systems Engineering Branch, Applied Engineering Technology Directorate

Aerospace Engineer Fernando Pellerano builds instruments for NASA during the day and creates robots with his son during his free time.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I’ve been an instrument systems engineer since 1999 and am currently the lead instrument systems engineer for the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System. I am technically responsible for the instrument and make sure that everything works as intended. I keep the entire technical team together, working towards the same technical requirements and objectives. We want the instrument to meet very stringent performance goals, but we have to accomplish the technical tasks within our available resources. For example, there is so much mass that the rocket can lift and only so much power that the satellite can provide.  Consequently, I also work with the instrument and project managers to stay within the cost and schedule constraints.

What will ATLAS do?

The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System is the single instrument for a mission called the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2. ICESat-2 will study the Earth’s cryosphere, which basically means everywhere we have ice and snow. ATLAS is an altimeter, an instrument that measures the height of the ice and snow. ATLAS will find out how much these levels are changing over time, due to, for example, global warming. A secondary objective is to measure vegetation canopy height to let us make estimates of global vegetation biomass. We are scheduled to launch in 2017.

Where do you work?

I work in my office, although I’m rarely there since I’m always in a meeting, but I also visit the labs and work in the clean rooms during the integration and test phase. Where I work always depends on the current phase of the project.

How is your job similar to being an orchestra conductor?

My job, by definition, is to create teamwork and collaboration. As an analogy, consider the role of an orchestra conductor. The scientists are the composers who develop a vision, i.e., the science goals.  I take people with all kinds of different skills and manage them to work to the same sheet of music; in this case, building a challenging instrument that meets the desired science.

How do you keep everyone on the same sheet of music?

It requires good leadership, which starts with good communication. I try to listen and communicate very carefully. If the leader doesn’t listen or express himself well, then he cannot expect the rest of the team to follow. You lead by example. If the team sees that the leader is honestly concerned about them and provides clear direction, then they will do the same. You try your best, but after all, we’re all people and it all boils down to human interaction. It’s no different than trying to get a group of kids to play baseball. In either case, a leader tries to get a group of people to work towards the same goal.

How many teams have you worked with?

I arrived at Goddard in 1990 as a microwaves communications engineer and had the chance to be a team member on a few missions like the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Since 1999, I have been the instrument systems engineer on three major remote sensing instruments: Aquarius, the Thermal InfraRed Sensor and ATLAS. I worked on Aquarius for over ten years, from concept to launch. We started with a small team so we grew and developed together. For TIRS and ATLAS, I was asked to come in at a later stage. I had to come into a team that already had an established personality and adapt to it, which was much more difficult.

So to you, each team has a distinct personality?

Absolutely. It’s a combination of the people involved, the size of the team and the challenge before the team. For example, if your project has a relaxed cost and time schedule with a relatively easy technical goal, which never happens, then the team would be more relaxed. But a team that is working on something that is very, very technically challenging with tough time and schedule constraints would clearly be under more tension. Also, another consideration that plays a big role on the team’s personality is whether the team has previously worked together or if they’re trying to establish new relationships.

How do you relieve tension on a team?

Again, you must lead by example. If you run around hysterically, then the team will be hysterical. As the systems engineer, I try to communicate and provide stability. It also helps to insulate team members from some of the dynamics that go on and give them the space they need to do their jobs.

Why did you choose your profession?

I never thought of becoming anything but an engineer. It was just in my blood. My father and grandfather were engineers. I think I was born with the knack.

Do you speak another language?

I’m a native Spanish speaker, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Puerto Rico. Being bilingual, I’ve learned that translations involve more than just words, they also include cultural differences.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love the science the most. I enjoy working with the scientists to get these rather complicated scientific measurements. I believe that they bring great value to society.

Fernando's Conversations With Goddard has been split into two parts.  Read Part Two.

Read about the robot competition in "I, Tormentum."

OF NOTE:  2014 Goddard Senior Fellow. NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals for 2012 and 2007.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Fernando Pellerano
Fernando Pellerano
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Fernado Pellerano and his son with their home-built robot.
Fernado Pellerano and his son with their home-built robot.
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Courtesy of F. Pellerano
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Page Last Updated: December 19th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner