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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Donna Shirley - Mars Exploration Program Manager

Posted October 29, 2007 9:24 AM by julie

Donna Shirley was raised in a small town in Oklahoma where her parents encouraged her academic studies. As a small girl she had an intense interest in flying airplanes and her father and uncle encouraged her. Before she was out of her teens, Donna Shirley was soloing and earned her pilot's license.

She entered college in the 1950s with the purpose of studying aeronautic engineering. However, engineering schools were still an all-male bastion. When she walked into her advisor's office he said "What are you doing here?"

She replied, "I'm enrolling in aeronautical engineering".

"Girls can't be engineers" He said.

She declared, "Yes I can", and did.

Shirley claimed that math was her worst subject in school; however, "I knew I had to learn it to be an engineer, so I sweated it out." She received an M.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California, a B.S degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Oklahoma, and a B.A in Journalism also from University of Oklahoma.

After graduation, Donna Shirley worked as a spec writer in St. Louis before winning a job with NASA. She arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966 to work on a Mars program. She was an aerodynamicist working on how Mars landers would come through the atmosphere and survive without burning up or tumbling out of control.

She managed the Mars Exploration Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on July 4, 1997 the entire world watched as the Mars Pathfinder and the Sojourner Rover successfully landed on Mars. Two months later the Mars Global Surveyor successfully went into orbit around the red planet. Not only were these events two of the U.S. space program's greatest successes, but they may well provide the world with some of the most important scientific data of the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Shirley, "My proudest moment was having my daughter, my second moment was when the Pathfinder and Sojourner actually worked. When you consider that it was going 17,000 miles an hour and it wasn't supposed to make just another hole in the ground—well, that was a great achievement." Donna Shirley retired in August 1998 as Manager of the Mars Exploration Program after a 32-year career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Donna Shirley has written an autobiography, Managing Martians: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman's Lifelong Quest to Get to Mars -- and of the Team Behind the Space Robot That Has Captured the Imagination of the World. After leaving NASA in 1998, she wrote an on-line book called Managing Creativity: A Practical Guide to Inventing, Developing and Producing Innovative Products. She has taught a course called Managing Creativity, based on her experience at NASA and JPL and the book she wrote. In 2003, she retired from the University Of Oklahoma College Of Engineering where she was Assistant Dean and an instructor of Aerospace Mechanical Engineering. She has numerous technical and management awards including four honorary Doctorates.



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United States - Member - New Member Engineering Fields - Biomedical Engineering - Biology, the most elegant Engineering Popular Science - Biology - New Member

Join Date: Feb 2005
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Good Answers: 3

Re: Donna Shirley - Mars Exploration Program Manager

10/30/2007 9:46 AM

I had the opportunity to meet Donna in the early 80's while doing some work on a Mars Rover program. I was very impressed with her skills as a manager and for her technical grasp of the technologies her group was developing. A rare combination for any manager.

United States - Member - Popular Science - Evolution - Aren't we still evolving?

Join Date: Feb 2007
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Re: Donna Shirley - Mars Exploration Program Manager

10/30/2007 12:28 PM

Thanks for sharing! It's always neat to hear that people on CR4 have met the people we feature. Since many of our featured scientists and engineers in this blog and others are deceased it doesn't happen that often!

Anonymous Poster

Re: Donna Shirley - Mars Exploration Program Manager

11/05/2007 4:34 PM

It would be a little more relevant i think to bring up some content regarding her actual engineering experience, since this is a topic about female scientists and engineers.

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