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Season 5, Episode 14: Goodbye Saturn, Hello Earth

Season 5Episode 14Aug 27, 2021

Janelle Wellons likes to say that she operates “fancy space cameras.” At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she creates commands that allow spacecraft to take valuable scientific data in our solar system and here at planet Earth.

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Artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft diving between Saturn and its innermost ring. Cassini's mission ended by plunging into Saturn in 2017.

Janelle Wellons likes to say that she operates “fancy space cameras.” At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she creates commands that allow spacecraft to take valuable scientific data in our solar system and here at planet Earth. She also monitors the health of spacecraft, like a space robot doctor. She has worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Sentinel-6/Michael Freilich, and more.In this episode, she reflects on her experiences at JPL and why outreach and diversity and inclusion efforts are so important.

Jim Green:Every spacecraft that NASA builds is so unique, whether they orbit Saturn or the Earth. Let’s talk to an instrument engineer that creates the commands that tell our instruments what to measure.

Janelle Wellons:Space is not this gatekeeper that says if you didn’t make it after college, then it’s not for you. Space is a place for everyone.

Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this is a new season of Gravity Assist. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA in making these fabulous missions happen.

Jim Green: I’m here with Janell Wellons, and she is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, and it’s in Pasadena, California. She has worked on missions to the Moon and Saturn and right now, also here at Earth. Welcome, Janelle, to Gravity Assist.

Janelle Wellons:Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here.

Jim Green:Well, I’m, I’m just as excited having because we’re going to talk about your activity and what led you to JPL? How did, how did you get your, what I would say, your dream job? Right.

Janelle Wellons:Right. Right. It was definitely not a clear shot, I could tell you that much.

Janelle Wellons:So you know, I’m a kid in New Jersey. Neither my parents are in the sciences or engineering. But my parents from a young age instilled in me that curiosity was always going to be a good thing. And so that meant when I went to Toys R Us, I didn’t just have to go into the pink aisle with all the Barbie dolls and the kitchen sets. I was allowed to go to the blue aisle, too.

Janelle Wellons:And that…

Jim Green:Cool.

Janelle Wellons:Made all the difference for me thinking about what my future could be. But it also kind of led to some issues. I call them issues and maybe they’re not so much of issues. Because I got to high school, I realized that all of the classmates around me, they knew exactly what they wanted to do. And I didn’t even know where to start. It wasn’t something that was at the forefront because my parents, they also didn’t graduate from any four-year universities.

Janelle Wellons:But I was actually getting mail addressed to me from colleges, all around the nation college, they had never heard of talking about their track programs, talking about, oh, we have this kind of math major, or this kind of literature. It was amazing. But it was also overwhelming. I was taking these letters, I was storing them in a container underneath my bed. And when I ran out of room in the container, they were going in the trash can.

Jim Green:Okay.

Janelle Wellons:My mom turns and happens to notice there’s a pamphlet for school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a school I had never heard of in my life. But my mom, thank goodness for my mom, she had heard of this school. And she said, You need to look at this. This is a great school.

Jim Green: Yes, MIT.

Janelle Wellons at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Janelle Wellons: MIT. (laughs)

Janelle Wellons: And so we did look at it, we spread it out on the kitchen table. And it was talking about how they had this summer program for juniors going into their senior year. And you’re going to learn all about the sciences and you’re going to be all these other students from around the nation and if you get in, it’s also totally free of cost which, my mom’s saw that part and she’s like, “You’re applying to this.”

Janelle Wellons:I went back and realized that the previous year, they had over 2000 applicants and only admitted one person from New Jersey. “Like, Oh, well, it’s a wrap, I’m definitely not getting in.” I mean, come on. I’m not even top of my class in the middle of nowhere New Jersey, sorry. I just didn’t think, you know, that, why would choose me? I’m not the perfect SAT. I’m not the perfect grades. And so when my mom called me that spring, saying “you need to rush home, there’s a package in the mail,” I’m like, well, we already went over this, but fine, I’ll come home.”

Janelle Wellons:And I opened it up and saw that word, “congratulations.” It changed my life.

Jim Green:All right. So then you graduate. How did you get to JPL from there?

Janelle Wellons:Well, I was taking all these classes in my major. And my professors kept on talking about this NASA JPL place. That three-letter word was just everywhere. Oh, let’s pretend we’re gonna land something on Mars, like JPL. Let’s pretend we’re gonna send a spacecraft out of our solar system like JPL. It’s like, this name just kept coming up, coming up. And suddenly a place I didn’t know. I started to know. And I started to become really interested in working for JPL. I mean, cool space robotics! Like, if I’m going to study aerospace engineering, then I want to work for them. They seem super cool. And so because of that, of course, I was going for the internship every year, getting in that line of the career fair, holding my resume, listening to my classmates in front of me talk about all their cool projects, hoping that maybe I’ll be cool, too. (laughs) But I never landed the internship.

Janelle Wellons: And I’m glad that it happened the way that it did, because I realized that even I didn’t believe that I was an engineer at that point. It took until my senior year to really start getting the confidence that I belonged here.

Janelle Wellons:And I remember it was right around Thanksgiving, that I got a phone call. Phone call was coming from I believe someone in HR saying, “hey, has anyone talked to you about salary yet?” I said, “Salary? Wait a second! Did I get the job?” He’s was like, “Oh, wait. You didn’t hear that yet? Yes, you did.” I said, “Excuse me,” while I put ’em on mute. And I had the biggest celebration you can imagine right there, my dorm room jumping up and down. I couldn’t believe it. I finally landed the job at JPL. And not long after that, when I graduated from MIT, I flew out to California for maybe the third time in my entire life, and started my new life here, working there.

Jim Green: Fantastic. Well, you followed your passion. And because of that, you met your goals. And they are lofty goals. So your first mission at JPL was Cassini, I found out. Well, can you tell me more about what you did working on Cassini?

Janelle Wellons: Absolutely. So I’m starting at JPL. I’m a new person, nervous all over again, because you got the job and now it’s time to prove yourself, right? And when I was hired, I was hired into a group that does instrument operations engineering. But to be quite honest, I really did not know what that was, you know, between the interviews and talking to all the people, your excitement can get the best of you, and you’re just excited to be there.

Janelle Wellons:And soon I found out that this this job of instrument operations engineering, basically meant that I could do some of the coolest things imaginable. Because on Cassini, I learned what that job title was all about. It was about basically operating the scientific instruments that we put on the spacecraft that go to all these places, so that we can learn more about them — the how, the why, the what, all those questions asked by the scientists, I was there to make it happen.

Janelle Wellons:And so I was trained on Cassini to generate commands that had the ones and zeros, the machine language and our instruments can understand. And in particular, on this mission, I was commanding the imaging science subsystem, and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, but I kind of like to call them fancy space cameras, because the end product that you got from these instruments, were these absolutely beautiful images of Saturn, its rings, its moons. I mean, seeing those images come down and realizing that we’re there. We captured this, this isn’t an artist’s rendition, this is real. I was sending them to my friends. They just they couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t either. But that was my job: commanding these instruments, these cameras and getting back these wonderful pictures.

Janelle Wellons:And the other half of it was making sure that things were running smoothly. You know, we kind of talk about instruments and spacecraft like their people sometimes, making sure they’re healthy and safe. And I kind of like to compare my job to somewhat like a doctor and their patient, you know, you come in, you’re not feeling so well. They look at the charts and: Oh, your blood levels are spiking all your temperature’s high. It’s the same thing that we’re doing every day that we come into work, we’re looking at the charts of the instrument: is the voltages doing okay, the currents, the temperatures, all the commands, are they executing the right way. And over time, you really get to know how your instrument behaves, and when things are going well, or even when they’re not going well, even if it’s not because it’s out of a limit, just because you have a good understanding of how it works.

Janelle Wellons:Cassini was actually this really amazing part of its journey. It was at the end. We were approaching fastly approaching the grand finale of the Cassini mission.

Jim Green:That’s right. That’s right.

Jim Green: And while you were doing that, while you were out there working on the instrument, I was NASA Headquarters. And I don’t know how you felt when we decided Cassini needed to die by plunging into Saturn in 2017, but I’m the one that signed off on it.

Janelle Wellons:Are you serious? Oh, my goodness.

Jim Green:Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, It was a, it was something that had to be done because the what we found in terms of the possible life on Enceladus, and Titan was such a fantastic moon, that we just couldn’t risk the spacecraft hitting either one of those moons.

Janelle Wellons:Yeah.

Jim Green:So we, we needed, we needed to plunge it into the atmosphere. So how did you feel when that happened?

Janelle Wellons: I feel honored. I’m meeting the man who signed the line, who brought the end to Cassini, a very fitting and to Cassini, too. When I heard that news. Honestly, I was so excited. I could not believe my luck. I’m on my first project at JPL and you’re telling me that we are purposefully going to destroy a spacecraft? I’m like, when is the next opportunity that this is gonna happen for me? I was psyched. (laughs)

Jim Green: Unfortunately, it was me, but JPL proposed this fabulous mission of jumping in between the rings and the clouds of Saturn. Wow, what’s not to like about that?

Janelle Wellons:Yeah.

Jim Green:We’ve learned so much from that.

Janelle Wellons:I realized over time that I needed to kind of keep my excitement on the inside a little bit. ‘Cause I got the feeling that maybe not everyone around me was quite as excited as I was.

Jim Green: They were very sad. They were I know, I you know. So I was in the control room when it happened. And it was a rather somber affair.

Jim Green:Mhm.

Janelle Wellons:I was at Caltech, and we were watching on the screen, everybody in mission control. And at the end, when everyone stood up, and we announced the end, and people were hugging, I saw. And he was crying like ugly tears crying.

Jim Green:Yeah, I know.

Janelle Wellons:when I saw him do that. I started crying, the hardest I ever had. This team was like a family. And they were the family that welcomed me. And it was going to be the start of the end to that too. Maybe at JPL. But of course not in our personal lives outwards. We still meet. I’ll never forget it because of that.

Jim Green: Well, after Cassini did you get involved in your next big mission? Was at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter?

Janelle Wellons: Yes, it was. So while I was working on Cassini, I started to learn about that project. And I started to learn that half my time will be spent on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. And so I joined that team. And it was in stark contrast to the Cassini team, because of the sheer size of it. So I went from working with all these people to be on a team of five at JPL. And it was a big change, but a very cool one. It kind of showed me that there are so many differences in the missions that we operate and how we go about them what the team dynamic is. In this case, on LRO, I was going to be operating the Diviner instrument.

Janelle Wellons:That’s a radiometer. And so being on LRO was very cool. Because one, I remember being able to go outside at night, look at the Moon and say, we’re there. Like we’re there.

Jim Green:Wow. That’s right.

Janelle Wellons:And in the very beginning, I was sending commands in real time, like on the headset, with the folks out at NASA Goddard who were in charge of operating the spacecraft and getting all the official lingo like command on the way or go for uplink it was just so cool.

Jim Green:Diviner is a fabulous instrument, measuring the temperature the surface. This is how we know those permanently shadowed areas are colder than the surface of Pluto. And it’s from the diviner instrument on LRO.

Janelle Wellons:Colder than Pluto! That’s really cool.

Jim Green:They, they are, you know, and so volatiles fall on them, you know, water’s in there and it’s just not coming out because it’s just frozen solid. So that’s one of the reasons why LRO is such a fabulous mission. Now it’s still operating.

Janelle Wellons:Yeah.

Jim Green:Are you still involved in that? Or did you go on to something else?

Janelle Wellons:I’m working on three Earth missions, which is not something I ever imagined for myself coming to JPL. Because like I said earlier, I knew them from the Mars, and the Venus and the Sun and Saturn, I didn’t really know them for Earth. Come to find out though Earth is one, a planet and two, our home, so why wouldn’t we be doing all this great science for our own planet?

Jim Green:Right.

Janelle Wellons:And so while I was working on LRO, I started to get introduced to this project called the Multi-Angle Instrument for Aerosols. I didn’t know much about it, but I was told by my supervisor, this is something you want to be involved in early on. I said, “Yes, ma’am. I definitely trust your judgment.” And she was right. I joined that project very early on.

Janelle Wellons:And I think what makes this project truly special, is that its mission is something that is absolutely, absolutely going to impact people here on Earth. Because MAIA, MAIA is this instrument, it’s a camera, ‘course, the fancy space camera, that’s going to be measuring particulate matter, or pollution, in cities all over the world. And by measuring this pollution, they’re also going to be doing health studies in those same areas.

Jim Green:So, in addition to MAIA, you’re also working on a couple other Earth science missions. What are they?

Janelle Wellons:Yes, I am also working on a mission called Sentinel-6 that launched last November. I was on the team then wish I was because oh, man, can you imagine your project being launched just the adrenaline to be there to see your accomplishment? But I’m so happy I’m on it now. Because when I joined, they were doing a lot of very cool activities to make sure the instruments were performing the way they should be. And so I got to do that real time stuff again, on the console. Everybody paid attention. Are you ready? Watching the telemetry or the monitoring the, the temperatures of voltages, the things we spoke about before. And I’m also on this project called SWOT. And SWOT is not yet in space, but it is making its way shortly there. It is in the lab, is being integrated, put together tested, we’re in that phase of development. And it’s my job in that capacity to figure out once again, how we operate this once it actually gets up in space.

Jim Green:Now, of course, Sentinel-6 is also called Michael Freilich and Michael Freilich was the division director of Earth science when I was the planetary science director. And so Mike and I were good friends. And he has passed away. And I’m delighted that Sentinel-6 has been named after him.

Janelle Wellons: I wish I had had the pleasure to meet him. And sounds like you were really good friends. I’m sorry for your loss, but so happy because his legacy obviously, is, is living on.

Jim Green: Well, you know, I know you enjoy public outreach activities. And so when you talk, what does the public want to know?

Janelle Wellons:You know, when I talk, my goal, my mission is, it may be seem like it’s a simple one. But it’s just to inspire at least one person in the room. I don’t care who it is, because inspiration doesn’t stop when you’re just a kid. Space is not this gatekeeper that says “if you didn’t make it after college, then it’s not for you.” Space is a place for everyone.

Janelle Wellons:So when I do outreach, my goal is specifically to talk to people who may not think that it’s possible for them to one day work for NASA, kind of the same way, I wasn’t exactly thinking it was possible for me to one day, and share with them that not only did my journey feel very much full of chances, opportunities, maybe it wouldn’t have even happened if not for a pamphlet in the mail. But also not giving up after the first bit of failure, of rejection. That’s a part of what actually helps you grow and helps you get better. And so that’s the message that I like to share. So that by the end, there’s someone out there who may not have thought that this was for them, who now thinks, “I can do it too.”

Jim Green: Janelle, you work in the diversity and inclusion activities at JPL. What’s that like? And what do you guys do?

Janelle Wellons:I got into the diversity, inclusion and equity part of the lab, honestly, because when I came into JPL, I was looking for that community. I was wondering to myself, “you know, I’m out here in California by myself, you know, my whole family’s back on the east coast. And here I am. It would just really be great if I had a community of people, specifically of black engineers, who can relate to my experience in a lot of ways, that I could just talk to.” And so after doing some digging, we found there was an organization out there, but they had kind of been dormant, doing maybe one event per year. And I proposed: Do you mind if me and some of my friends revive this? Can we make this something new? And they gave us the total thumbs up with support. And that’s exactly what we did.

Janelle Wellons: And at first, we went from building the community: let’s all go for a hike, let’s meet in the cafeteria for games on Friday, during lunch. But we were able to grow so much more beyond that, especially with the help of the other employee resource groups at the lab. And we went from building that community to using that community to institute real change that can only improve NASA as a whole, to make that future for those who never imagined themselves in a place like this, who maybe have never pictured themselves as an engineer, because maybe they’ve never seen someone who looks like them in that space.

Janelle Wellons: So now, we’re out there doing outreach for K through 12. for going to the conventions, we’re recruiting, we are helping the lab with creating new events to allow employees to talk with each other about the experiences that we go through to really just make that inclusive environment that NASA is all about. And so I’m so proud to be involved in all those efforts. And I’m looking forward to all the great things that will come from it.

Jim Green: Well, that’s fantastic. Because Janelle as you know, so well, many of our young students don’t see a future in some of these things. They don’t even know what’s going on in some areas. So getting them exposed and being that, you know, role model that you are is a huge step to help them on their way. And I’m sure you’re giving gravity assists along the way.

Jim Green:Well, Janelle, I always like to ask my guests to tell me what was that event or person, place or thing that got them so excited about being the engineer they are today? I call that event a gravity assist. So Janelle, what was your gravity assist?

Janelle Wellons: My gravity assist happened my freshman year at MIT. So I come out of that program. I was so excited to be there. And I realized that I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I knew that math was cool, for sure. I absolutely loved math. And I convinced myself, I was going to become a theoretical mathematician.

Janelle Wellons: And all these upperclassmen were telling me, “you know, MIT is a school that’s known for its engineering. So we’re just gonna encourage you to take at least one introductory class to engineering.” All right.

Janelle Wellons: But then I came across one called aerospace engineering. And I was the type of kid who was up watching Jimmy Neutron building a rocket in his backyard and launch into space thinking, “How can I be the kid in the neighborhood that does the same thing?” And you know, the black hole videos late at night. You know, space is cool. I don’t know many people who don’t think so.

Jim Green:That’s right.

Janelle Wellons: And so, how about I give that one a try? And this is when the gravity assist comes in, because I’m in the class on the first day, and the professor is going over the syllabus. And he’s talking about how we’re going to learn the rocket equation, we’re going to learn about how planes fly. And we’re also going to learn a little bit about the history of spaceflight. And he shows this image of an astronaut fixing the Hubble telescope. And I remember looking at that, and thinking, “this is unreal. Some people really, they have a job that lets them work on something in space? And then my professor, Professor Jeffrey Hoffman, says that he is the man in the photo.

Jim Green: Yes, he is. Jeff is a very good friend of mine.

Janelle Wellons: Wow. I mean, I think I may have been the only person in the room who didn’t know who he was prior to that class. Because I seem to be the only one with my jaw on the desk in disbelief that I was in the same room as an astronaut. Are you serious? Never met anyone from NASA. You’re telling me my professor is an astronaut? That moment, that moment was everything for me because I couldn’t imagine turning down the opportunity to learn aerospace engineering from someone like him. And, you know, I went on to continue with the major knowing nothing about this subject, but learning every step of the way. And even doing an internship where he was my mentor over in Italy, and them rolling out the red carpet for him because he had flown with the Italians in space. I mean, he doesn’t even know this, he likely does not know this. But he was the gravity assist that really set me on this path to be here at JPL.

Jim Green: Well, that’s fantastic. Well, Janelle, thanks so much for joining me in discussing your fantastic career.

Janelle Wellons:Thank you so much.

Jim Green:My pleasure.

Jim Green:Well, join me next time as we continue our journey to look under the hood at NASA and see how we do what we do. I’m Jim Green, and this is your Gravity Assist.

Jim Green:Gravity Assist is going to be taking a mid-season break. Come back in October when we’ll discuss the Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids, space weather, and much, much more. In the meantime, check out other NASA podcasts at


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper