NASA Engr. Genevie Velarde Yang: To Mars and beyond

Gen (right) with husband Dan and daughter Nicole. Courtesy of Velarde family

By Vicky Vitug

Genevie Velarde Yang remembers growing up in Norwalk, Southern California playing Solitaire and Minesweeper games on a computer with her family. No one would have thought that one day she would  become an engineer, or more precisely, a Flight System Engineer who would become pivotal in the successful Perseverance Rover mission to Mars for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“Back then it was rare to have a computer in the house so I absolutely loved it,” she said when interviewed by The FilAm. 

The only telltale indication she was likely to pursue a future in Science was her fascination with the concept of Space. She said, “I have always been curious about Space, growing up in the ‘80s. I loved all the space movies, ‘Star Wars,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Star Trek.’”

Gen, as she is called by her family and close friends, was one of three Filipinos who were part of the team that sent the Perseverance Rover on a historic mission to Mars. Her role as a Flight System Engineer was to make sure Perseverance “launched, arrived, and safely landed on Mars.” The two other Filipinos in the team were Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems Engineer Gregorio Villar and Lead Electromagnetic Compatibility Engineer Edward Gonzalez. All three were hailed in the Philippines and the U.S. for their critical roles in the NASA program. 

Explained Gen: “Prior to launch I helped the flight software team test their requirements and once it came time to launching our spacecraft/rover to Mars, I then became the Mars 2020 Uplink Lead for Cruise and Entry Descent and Landing making sure all the activities and commands to run onboard the spacecraft computer were built correctly and ready to be sent to the spacecraft.”

Her team worked separately during the pandemic and continued to support each other.

While working on the project, the global disruption called COVID-19 happened. Gen said the Mars project had to continue despite  the unprecedented public health crisis and the harrowing deaths of millions of people worldwide. 

“We resolutely  continued supporting and maintaining the spacecraft and making our way to Mars while we were isolating ourselves from each other,  she said.

The whole world rejoiced that the Mars landing was a success, and Gen was proud of her role in it. 

From Laguna to California

The Laguna-born Gen came to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. Her father Antonio Velarde uprooted his entire family — wife Thelma and their children  Michael 7, Gen almost 6  and Raymond, 4 —  from Binan, Laguna, and migrated to California. 

As a teenager she wasn’t sure what area of study to pursue in college. However, after assessing her academic strengths and sensing her passion for Science, Space and Math, she decided to take up Engineering. She enrolled at the California Polytechnic State University where she obtained a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

“As far as having a clear vision of my career path, if you asked me as a high schooler what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would not have given you an answer of working for NASA,” she told The FilAm.

In 2000, Gen was hired by the NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory  as a Flight System Engineer.   To this day she continues to work on the Mars 2020 program as a Communication Planning Lead for the Perseverance Rover. 

She said that her role as “the communication lead for the Rover is important or else we won’t be able to get the wonderful images we see daily from Mars and obtain our first ever images of flight on Mars with newest member of the planet our little helicopter called Ingenuity…I personally like InGENuity because it also has my name GEN in it.”

Gen wishes that along with the objective of finding signs of life in Mars, the Perseverance mission will inspire others to show to the world that”when we work together as one, we can overcome the difficulties and achieve amazing feats.”

Her advice to young girls who may show an interest in Science? “I focused on my interest and academic strengths. That led me to decide on Engineering.”

Gen is married to Daniel Yang and they have a daughter Nicole, now 18, whom she described as a “great golfer.”

© The FilAm 2023

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