Meet: Donna Shirley
Former Manager, Mars Exploration Program
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
Please note: Since writing this biography in 1996, Donna has
retired from NASA. More information about her current activities can be
found at Donna's web site.
Who I Am
As manager of the Mars Exploration Program, I manage three flight projects
and studies of future missions to Mars. Everyday I deal with scientists
trying to understand Mars, and with the technology we need to go to Mars
without costing a lot.
An average day on my job consists of going to a lot of meetings. I write
plans for how we are going to conduct our programs. I spend a lot of time
communicating between the projects and with our NASA sponsors about various
aspects of the program. I work with the different projects to get them
to use similar processes so that everyone isn't just doing their own thing,
because it's cheaper and more efficient.
Since the press release about finding signs of possible past life in
the Mars meteorite, I have spent five to 10 hours a week dealing with
the media: television, radio, newspapers and magazines. I give a lot of
interviews. I also give a lot of talks on the Mars program and write two
or three papers a year describing the program.
There's also the management side of the project to take care of, like
working with upper management on newer, fairer ways to determine people's
salaries. I manange 40 people who work directly for the Mars program office,
which means I help them get the support they need to do their jobs.
My Career Journey
Math was my worst subject in school. However, I knew I had to learn
it to be an engineer, so I sweated it out. I was always kidded in high
school for taking mechanical drawing instead of home economics. When I
went to college I walked into my advisor's office and he said, "What are
you doing here?" I said, "I'm enrolling in aeronautical engineering."
He responded, "Girls can't be engineers!" I told him I could, and I did!
I 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
I came to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966 to work on a Mars program.
I was an aerodynamicist working on how Mars landers would come through
the atmosphere and survive without burning up or tumbling out of control.
Now, 30 years later, I'm managing the Mars Exploration Program Office
at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Exploration Program is sending
orbiters and landers to Mars beginning in November of this year, with
Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder, and will continue to fly two
missions in every Mars opportunity (every 26 months) through 2005.
I was raised in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and now live in LaCanada, California,
almost right next door to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. My 19-year-old
daughter, Laura, is a sophomore at Scripps College for Women in Claremont,
Calif. We used to act in plays together but now that she's in school I
just do acting without her. My daughter and I take at least a couple of
vacations each year together. In January we're going to New Zealand. I'm
the membership chairman of a community theater group this year. I've written
a first draft of a book on "Managing Creativity,"which is being reviewed
right now. In the winter I ski. In the summer I used to backpack in the
mountains, but I've been too busy for the last couple of years. I also
play the guitar and write/sing folk songs. In the past I've done oil painting
and some crafts, and this semester I'm taking an acting class. I also
take short courses and classes in useful subjects like management, geology
Likes About Career
The best part about my job is being part of program to explore Mars.
I started college right after the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S.
orbiter of the Earth and studied to build airplanes. But I've spent most
of my career working on space. I'd probably have taken different courses
in school if I had to do it all over again. The main thing is to be flexible.
Usually you don't get to work in the same field your whole career. If
you get a sound technical education and are willing to learn and work
hard throughout your life you'll be okay and will get to do some fun stuff!