Irvine resident Charlene Valerio looks up at the sky from the Jeffrey Open Space Trail.

Touchdown on Mars

by TOM BERG

On weekends, Charlene Valerio likes to jog the Jeffrey Open Space Trail. On weekdays, she coordinates a team of 100 Caltech scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech, working on the latest Mars mission.

“This is a stepping stone for us to bring humans to Mars in our lifetime,” says the systems engineer. “How amazing would that be? To be a part of that is very meaningful.”

On Feb. 18, the world watched NASA’s Perseverance rover land on Mars after its seven-month journey. Valerio, who spent four years preparing for that moment, recalls the joy she felt.

“Other people on our team were jumping up and down and cheering,” she says. “Personally, I cried – happy tears – because of all of the hard work that went into this. It made everything worth it.”

Choosing Irvine

Valerio began working at JPL in 2013 and moved to Irvine five years ago when her fiancé got a job as a lead software engineer at Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine. (“Gaming is a big part of our lives,” she says.)

They chose to live in Woodbury Village because they enjoyed all the nearby restaurants, the Spectrum Center and nearby running trails, which Valerio uses to stay healthy and centered.

“I’m a marathon runner,” she says. “Running on Jeffrey Open Space Trail really helps clear my head and helps my work too.”

 

Life on Mars

Valerio previously worked on JPL’s Juno mission, which placed a spacecraft in Jupiter’s orbit in 2016; and its InSight mission, which landed on Mars in 2018 to study the deep interior of the planet.

“This mission, Perseverance, has been the most pivotal for me,” she says.

For one thing, the rover stands a good chance of finding evidence of ancient microbial life.

“That would mean that we aren’t the only ones in the solar system,” she says. “That’s exciting.”

For another thing, the rover will attempt to generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – vital for crewed missions.

“Just the thought of people living on another planet is so amazing,” she says. “It’s what got me into aerospace when I was in high school.”

NASA’s Perseverance rover is searching for signs of microbial life on Mars.

The American dream

Valerio enjoys mentoring youth about the space program, in part because of all those who helped her along the way.

“I had the opportunity to work with people who are legendary at JPL – people I’ve always looked up to,” she says. “And for them to be my mentors, it just means a lot.”

She also takes inspiration from another source – her parents.

“Both of them came from farming families and immigrated to the United States to pursue the American dream,” she says. “They started off working at minimum wage and worked multiple jobs in order to support my sister and me. I absolutely wouldn’t be able to be where I am today if it wasn’t for their strength and unconditional love.”