Why is Donna Shirley an Inspiration?
"Nobody originally believed that a two-foot-long rover could actually move around on Mars at all, much less accomplish science, ... (But) there it was -- it did it."
Donna (Pivorotta) Shirley is an engineer, trailblazer and aerospace icon. She joined the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) group of NASA in 1966 as one of few woman even in NASA at all, let alone engineers. For context there were 2,000 other engineers as her coworkers, mostly all men... She was a lone star in the middle of a starfield just waiting to be noticed.
Even as a young girl in school she bucked the conventional norms. She was the only girl in her school to not take home economics, but instead took mechanical drawing. She was a fan of sci-fi and authors like Arthur C Clarke. She learned how to fly planes starting at the age of 15.
Donna her senior year was also:
- Class VP
- Band VP
Find out more in the video below
Donna Shirley and Trailblazing
When she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma her advisor told her that "Girl's can't be engineers". Boy was that advisor wrong... While studying engineering at University of Oklahoma she also studying flying. She became certified in single-engine land/sea, multi-engine land, commercial flying and as a flight instructor. After getting her BS in Aerospace and Mechanical engineering at University of Oklahoma, she got her MS in Aerospace Engineering from USC.
While this is out of order she eventually went back to University of Oklahoma to serve as an Associate Dean of Engineering for 3 years. That advisor was about as wrong as wrong can get! If you are interested in seeing in vivid detail how wrong I recommend browsing the "University of Oklahoma" section of her resume retrieved with the WayBack Machine. Leaving academia behind she lead teams at JPL on a variety of projects.
Donna Shirley and Mars
Joining JPL she began work on a multitude of projects all relating to the Mars exploration efforts. She worked as an aerodynamic analyst on Lander atmospheric entry on Mars. This ultimately led to the rovers being able to survive! She also worked on heat shields, and other projects before becoming a program manager. She managed the Mariner 10 mission to Venus and Mercury!
Eventually she began work on the Mars Rover project. She became the manager of the Mars Exploration Program and lead two different inter-woven projects. Both the Mars Sojourner rover and Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars in 1997.
The Sojourner rover was intended to last 7 "sols" of active mission time. It ran for 83 "sols" (85 days) which was 11.8 times longer than the project needed it to. Talk about built to last! Her efforts earned her an induction into the Woman in Technology Hall of Fame.
Below is a video produced by JPL to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pathfinder and Sojourner mission. It gives so much good detail about the project! Highly recommend watching!
Donna Shirley and her Other Careers
Besides her tenure as an Associate Dean of Engineering for University of Oklahoma she was also a teacher. She was an instructor of Aerospace Mechanical Engineering at University of Oklahoma, teaching the Honors sections of Introduction to Engineering and Introduction to Computing. She also taught a technical Elective course of her own creation called "Managing Creativity". The course was based on her self published e-book she wrote in 1997. The first chapter of the book is available below.
She wrote a second book called "Managing Martians" in 1998. She managed the construction and opening of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, WA. She participated in the education and outreach programs as well as supporting the museum as a consultant even in retirement. She did lots of consulting and even started her own speaking, training and management consulting company.
Below is a video produced for Microsoft Research about the museum project. The museum was created with alot of help from the Seattle Microsoft team. Their combined goal was to increase literacy and understanding of science, technology and society. A bold mission indeed!