11 Facts About Donna Shirley, the First Woman to Manage a NASA Program

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Donna Shirley made space history in the 1990s as the first woman to manage a NASA program. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the veteran aerospace engineer led both the Mars Exploration Program and the team that built Sojourner, the first rover to land on the Red Planet. That climaxed the Mars Pathfinder mission on July 4, 1997. Here are 11 facts about Shirley’s life and career.

1. Donna Shirley was eager to escape her small-town Oklahoma roots.

Shirley was born in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, on July 27, 1941, to a doctor and a former horseback riding instructor, both of Chickasaw heritage. She struggled to fit in while growing up in the small town of Wynnewood, Oklahoma. In elementary school, she got into fist fights with boys and preferred games involving cowboys or detectives instead of princesses or dolls. When Shirley was 10, she announced that her career goal was to build planes.

2. Donna Shirley was inspired by sci-fi novelists Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

At age 12, Shirley discovered—and devoured—Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles at the Wynnewood public library. Her earthbound teenage endeavors included editing her high school yearbook and playing cymbals in the marching band, but her space dreams were powered by Jimmy, the protagonist of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, who makes a seven-month voyage to the planet. In her 1998 autobiography Managing Martians, Shirley recalled, “Clarke described a world that was my ideal of community and comradeship.”

3. At age 16, Donna Shirley became a licensed pilot.

Shirley’s father gave her flying lessons for her 15th birthday—her favorite birthday present of all time. After earning her pilot’s license at 16, she made her first solo flight out of the Pauls Valley airport in an Aeronca Model 7 Champion, a wood-and-fabric airplane with a 65-horsepower engine. In February 1958, she flew 35 miles northwest to Norman, Oklahoma, where she would attend university that fall, and back home again.

4. The University of Oklahoma didn’t give Donna Shirley a warm welcome.

“Girls can’t be engineers.” That was the response of a University of Oklahoma (UO) academic advisor when Shirley told him she planned to study aeronautical engineering. The 17-year-old was one of just six UO female engineering students at the time, and the student newspaper published an article insinuating they were there to meet men.

Early on, Shirley struggled with her academic workload, coming perilously close to flunking calculus and chemistry. As a college junior, she temporarily fulfilled her mother’s conventional hopes and lost sight of her career aspirations when she got engaged to a fellow engineering student and also won the Miss Wynnewood beauty pageant. Her engagement did not last, and she switched her major to professional writing before graduation.

5. Donna Shirley had a bumpy ride at McDonnell Aircraft.

In January 1963, Shirley, then 21, landed a technical writing job at McDonnell Aircraft, a St. Louis-based aerospace manufacturer. She was assigned to edit the work of older male engineers, who resented her presence. Although Shirley had some successes at McDonnell, like writing up the specs for the F-111 fighter aircraft, she found the corporate atmosphere dreary and unfulfilling. That didn’t change even after she’d returned to UO to complete her bachelor’s degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering. It enabled her to get a job as a McDonnell aerodynamist, designing projects instead of just describing them. Despite this improvement, in 1966, she left to join JPL and pursue her childhood dream of working on NASA’s Mars missions.

6. Donna Shirley forged a successful 32-year career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In Pasadena, Shirley earned respect and authority as she tackled a wide variety of projects. One of her early endeavors at the JPL involved designing blunt sphere-cone entry vehicle shapes that NASA used for decades to come. Armed with a 1968 master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, she worked as a mission engineer for Mariner 10’s mission to Venus and Mercury, providing analysis that prompted NASA to choose the launch date of November 3, 1973. Through the 1980s and early '90s, Shirley managed different JPL teams focusing on space station design, robotics technology, and rover development. This all put her on course to assume an historic leadership role with the Mars Pathfinder mission that would launch on December 4, 1996.

7. Donna Shirley clashed with Mars Pathfinder project manager Tony Spear.

Officially designated the Mars Pathfinder Microrover Flight Experiment Manager, Shirley led her team to develop the 25-pound, wheeled Sojourner microrover for the relatively low cost of $25 million, abiding by NASA’s then-motto of “Faster, Better, Cheaper” [PDF]. However, her Pathfinder counterpart Tony Spear was not pleased, as he had wanted to develop his own tethered rover. Friction between the two increased in 1994 when Shirley got the job of Mars Exploration Program manager—with an annual budget of $150 million—instead of the more-experienced Spear. However, when the Pathfinder spacecraft survived its “seven minutes of terror” during 1997’s epic Fourth of July Mars landing and Sojourner topped expectations by functioning for the equivalent of 85 Earth days, Shirley and Spear were united in their joy.

8. Donna Shirley’s groundbreaking rover was named after Sojourner Truth.

In 1993, Shirley staged an essay competition where students between the ages of 5 and 18 were asked to choose an influential woman to name the Mars rover after. More than 3000 contestants worldwide entered and were judged by members of the rover team and the Planetary Society. The winner was 12-year-old Valerie Ambroise, a Black girl from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who chose Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century anti-slavery and women’s rights activist. Pedantically, the NASA Science Office objected that the “proper procedure” for naming the rover had not been followed, but it remained Sojourner nonetheless.

9. In 1998, Donna Shirley had an asteroid named after her.

Two months before Shirley retired from NASA, astronomer Eleanor Helin named an asteroid after her. Helin, who was also employed by JPL, noted that Asteroid Donna Shirley—officially “5649 Shirley”—commemorated her work on Sojourner. The asteroid, whose estimated diameter is between 3 and 8 miles, is within Mars's orbit.

10. Donna Shirley founded a science fiction museum in Seattle.

In 2004, Shirley revisited her youthful passion for Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke by becoming the founding director of Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The $20 million museum, spanning more than 13,000 square feet, was located in the Experience Museum Project (now the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPop). It was the U.S.’s first science fiction museum. The galleries featured artifacts like a model Death Star from Star Wars, Captain Kirk’s chair from Star Trek, and the glistening skull of the T-800 Terminator. Although the permanent museum was decommissioned in 2011, elements of the collection remain at MoPop.

11. Donna Shirley has received a whole galaxy’s worth of honors.

This pioneering female scientist continued to earn recognition after leaving NASA. Shirley introduced Hillary Clinton’s keynote speech at the launch of the educational White House Mars Millennium Project in 1999 and received the National Space Society’s Wernher von Braun Award in 2001. In addition to holding four honorary doctorates, she is a member of the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame and the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.