Out of This World


Her phone number spells MARS, her car is a Saturn, and her home is the closest you can get to a cabin in the sky. Donna Shirley isn't your ordinary Earthbound mortal.

In fact, for 30 years she has spent eight to 18 hours a day planning how to get out of this world and onto other planets.

As director of the Mars program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, she has overseen much of America's speeded-up travel agenda to Earth's neighbor planet.

Along with encyclopedic knowledge of what it takes to get a spacecraft from here to there, she has the added talent of making difficult concepts understandable to those who would rather cut off a body part than talk technical.

Which is why, when the spaceship Pathfinder launched for Mars on Dec. 3, it was Shirley who showed up the next day on "Good Morning America," "Today" and "The Jim Lehrer News Hour" to explain how the ship was built, why it is going to Mars, what we expect to find there and what it all means.

It is also Shirley, the interplanetary wit, who titled a scholarly article "Mars on $300K a Day" and who borrowed author Ray Bradbury's classic sci-fi title "The Martian Chronicles" for the name of JPL's cyberspace journal about all things Martian.

And then there are all those "Martian of the Month" posters dotting JPL's walls and halls, hailing members of the team who have worked so monumentally hard to design and build "better, faster, cheaper" space missions under NASA's severe new time and budget constrictions.

Shirley is one space expert who does not fit what she calls the "geeky, nerdy," mentally macho stereotype that some people have of scientists.

"But I am not a scientist," Shirley explodes, having been hit direct-center in her pet peeve. "I am an engineer. And I only make that point because it's such an exciting field, which the media largely ignore. If you're an engineer, you can build a robot, ship it to Mars, talk to it and hear it talk back. You can see the pictures it takes. You can build new things that no one has ever built before. That's what engineers do."

Norm Haynes, head of the recently created JPL Mars Directorate and now Shirley's boss, says there's a difference between Shirley and others: She "has a talent for taking seemingly disconnected fragments of things and weaving them into a picture no one has ever seen before. Most engineers are good analysts, but not good synthesizers. She is able to create things that never existed before."

Being on the management side of things, what Shirley creates are the teams that actually do the building.

Since 1994, she has led planning and implementation of NASA missions to the little red planet, which is half the size of Earth and, at times, the third-brightest twinkle in the sky (after the moon and Venus).

For two years before that, she led a JPL team that created the amazing little Mars rover called Sojourner--the smartest, cutest robot ever hatched, soon to be re-created as a Mattel toy. And it's named for a woman.

With the recent successful launches of Mars Global Surveyor and Pathfinder (with the robot-ette on board), Shirley has helped carry out the new national mandate to create a "permanent presence" on Mars. And for a way to get there that costs less than, say, a Kevin Costner film.

And with those launches, she has also propelled herself right into fulfillment of her long-time dream: to help humans fly where (and how) they have never flown.


It is five days minus launch for Pathfinder, and adrenaline is high at JPL's woodsy, college-like campus.

Her running shoes on, as always, Shirley has been in nonstop meetings about future Mars projects. In between, she has taken calls (including one from the White House), answered e-mail, nailed down radio and TV interviews.

Now she and a cadre of JPL brass are seated at the head of a long narrow table in a conference room in the high-security building where Pathfinder was designed and built. The spacecraft's creators--engineers and scientists--sit along both sides of the table and against the wall. An eclectic group, they include denim-clad whiz kids in loafers with no socks along with more seasoned souls, who seem to favor short-sleeve sport shirts and slacks.

Of the 30 to 40 in the room, only two women are at the table: Shirley and Gail Robinson, the Pathfinder business operations office manager whom Shirley appointed to the job. (There are quite a few women at JPL working on other important projects, Shirley later says, as if eager to impress that it is not a sexist place.)

On the table is a teleconference device that links Pasadena with Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This is Pathfinder's final mission readiness review, and management listens as the head of each group explains last-minute glitches in the systems for which he is responsible and how those problems have been resolved. Each speaker concludes in bracing pep rally tones: "We are 'go' for launch."

It is an exceedingly tense session, and yet the banter between colleagues and coasts seems relaxed. Reference is made to a pre-launch party at someone's house the night before; people wander out for sandwiches and coffee, which they bring back.

The meeting lasts for hours, as the readiness of each and every bracket, nut, bolt, valve, wire, cable and scuff mark is analyzed, debated and discussed. Acronyms fill the air: "All AIM parts verified to have grounded lids. IMP has ungrounded FPGAs. Likelihood of charging in MPF is low. . . ."

In the end, the S / C (spacecraft) is deemed ready to go. And Shirley confides she is "nervous, anxious," has "butterflies."

"Years of people's lives have gone into this thing. It's put together with all this very fanatical devotion to the most minute detail. It's all brand new, never been done before. It's a huge investment for each person involved."

Not the least of those is Shirley.

She began her career at JPL in 1966 by working on aerodynamics analyses for a proposed Martian entry vehicle that never launched. Now, 30 years later, she has come full orbit, managing the efforts that actually lofted two such vehicles into space.


Shirley headed for the stars early on, when she insisted on taking the mechanical drawing course instead of home economics. In the little town of Wynnewood, Okla., population 2,500, where she was born and raised, this was considered "crazy. Girls didn't do things like that."

She also learned to fly. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in professional writing and a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering, both from the University of Oklahoma, she moved to California and signed on at JPL. While there, she went to night school and earned a master's in aerospace engineering from USC in 1968.

Bruce Murray, former director of JPL, founder of the Planetary Society and a professor of planetary science and geology at Caltech, says he first met Shirley in those early days. Both worked on Mariner 10 in the early '70s, Murray recalls. "Donna walked into a man's world" when she joined JPL, he says. "And it never occurred to the men that it should be any other way.

"I think she advanced to a position of real leadership because she is unusually capable, and she was able to articulate her case so well."


After all these years at JPL, managing projects with as many as 400 people and budgets up to $200 million, it's clear she shows a special fondness for the assignment that immediately preceded her current one: creating and managing the team that produced the personable robot that is right now soaring toward Mars.

Named Sojourner Truth, after an African American woman who led the crusade against slavery, the 22-pound robot will be the first to roam autonomously on another planet. Shirley recalls with obvious satisfaction that "everyone said it could not be done."

Her enthusiasm mounts as she speaks, underscoring just how exciting an engineer's life can be. And she's not just talking about her own job.

"See that young woman in the white shirt?" she says, pointing to a photo of what looks like a group of counselors at summer camp. "Lynn Sukamto's job was to take this very little Motorola modem we bought for $300 and make it work on Mars. Of course [giggle] Motorola said if we take it up there, it's out of warranty. She went ahead and spent two years figuring out how to package it to withstand radiation; how to design the antenna for it; how to keep it warm." (Mars surface temperatures average minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping to minus 199 at the poles at night. They can rise to about 80 degrees at the equator at noon.)

"The project manager for Pathfinder didn't want a rover on board the spaceship at all. He considered it a parasite, thought it would have to be tethered to Pathfinder by cable in order to carry power and data, and to enable radio communication. So it would be dragging a string around all the time. We said, 'The string will get tangled up when the rover turns. We'll design something new.' We proved he was wrong about the radio and everything else. Now he loves the rover."

The tale of how the radio was made suitable for Mars--a series of simple, logical, fun-to-try steps--could take an hour to tell. And for every part of the robot, Shirley can come up with more sagas of engineering creativity, all equally fascinating. For example, the invention of "rocker bogie" wheels able to rock and roll over uneven terrain, even over obstacles more than one and a half times the rover's own size.

The unique suspension design uses no springs, and allows the joints to bend and conform to ground contours as each of the six wheels moves up and down independently. Motion sensors on the frame detect excessive tilt to stop the rover from tipping over.

Longtime JPL engineer Don Bickler invented the rocker bogie, Shirley says. And during the early days of the project, he built part of the prototype in his garage at home. For those who think they'd rather spend money down here than in space, Shirley makes this point: The rocker bogie wheels meant for Mars are able to climb steps here on Earth. They eventually may be adapted for wheelchairs and other uses. In fact, many innovations dreamed up for space find Earthly applications, she says.

Then there are the laser stripes that the rover projects in front of it as it travels. The stripes remain straight until an insurmountable obstacle or hazard is detected. This causes them to wrinkle, which causes the rover's "eyes" (tiny cameras) to communicate with the rover's "brain," which then alters course to avoid the problem--without any human help.

"She's smart, she can stay out of trouble, and she pays her own way," Shirley says of Sojourner. "By carrying science instruments as she travels, she tells us things we need to know. Without her, the instruments would just be plopped down in one place."

How did Sojourner get so smart?

"David Miller, on our team, adapted some new MIT computer software that had never been applied to anything yet. The software is based on the way insects behave--a form of artificial intelligence. We put Dave's brain on the body with Don's rocker bogie wheels. . . ."

And this, mind you, is just one small part of one project out of dozens in which she has participated over the years.

Her resume lists 24 different assignments during her years at JPL, starting in 1966 as an aerodynamic analyst. From 1970 to '72, she was a mission analyst for Mariner 10, selecting the trajectory for its projected trip to Venus and Mercury. From '72 to '74, she managed navigation and mission design for Mariner's actual voyage. And as the years passed, her resume shows, Shirley's managerial responsibilities increased as she was given larger, more expensive and more complicated projects. She managed teams of people assigned to develop space stations, robotics, automation and planetary surface vehicles, including early versions of the rover. In 1991, she became chief engineer of a $1.6-billion project to explore asteroids, a comet and Saturn.

Then came the assignment to develop the rover for Mars. Even her resume, otherwise technical and dry, seems to crow: "If this is successful, it will be the first small rover on the surface of another planet and the first mobile vehicle on the surface of Mars."

Shirley uses this project to illustrate what her job is all about.

"I convinced headquarters [NASA] to spend the money on the project. I assembled the team. Some were available, but others I had to lobby for--twist their arms, or the arms of management to get them involved. It was a very creative team. We mixed research people with those who had flight experience. Normally that doesn't happen. Researchers are into way-out new areas and never have to confront reality. Those in flight stay completely away from the new stuff because it adds risk to a project. I brought these two totally different cultures together, convinced them to work together. We had some superb, old-time engineers, some bright young researchers into the new forms of artificial intelligence invented at MIT and never yet applied to anything.

"Pulling them together, getting them to solve problems in a group, getting the money to fund it all, convincing people I wasn't crazy. That's what I did."


The experience inspired her to formalize her management theories into an as-yet-unpublished book. In essence: Do away with the hierarchy, with the "tree" of linear management.

Her model, as she draws it on a blackboard, is a group of concentric circles--a team concept in which everyone is free to exchange ideas, even pieces of the budget, with everyone else.

Creative personnel are in the inner circles; the manager supervises from the edge.

"The key is to relinquish control," Shirley says. "A too-controlling manager will never succeed in producing a great creative product."

Haynes calls her "very innovative," with a management style "that empowers people to do good stuff."

Jake Matijevic worked for Shirley on the Sojourner, then replaced her as manager when she moved on. "She's technically competent, enthusiastic, an excellent manager," he says. "She tends to be a very driven individual. The testament of a really good manager is you don't have to work 18 hours a day because the job is managed so well. That's the kind she is."

Away from work, Shirley's passions include acting, singing, composing music on the guitar, sculpting, painting, flying planes (she stopped because there's too much traffic in the sky) and generally having a good time.

She was divorced four years ago from the JPL laser and propulsion researcher to whom she was married for 20 years. JPL, she says, "is a small town, we all work long hours, we are isolated here, and we all tend to socialize together. We have quite a few JPL marriages."

Her daughter, Laura Diane, 19, is the real pride and joy in Shirley's life. The two will soon leave for New Zealand on their annual mother-daughter trip.

This semester, Shirley is taking an acting class at Pasadena City College. And she just tried out for a part in a Tom Stoppard play at Caltech. And then there are those JPL activities and clubs in which she occasionally participates: biking, sailing, flying. . . .

"Engineers are real people, like everyone else," she says.


Donna Shirley

Age: 55.

Native? No. Born in Wynnewood, Okla.; moved to California in 1966; lives in La Can~ada Flintridge.

Family: Divorced; daughter Laura Diane, 19; one cat, two collie dogs.

Passions: Engineering, science, nature, conservation, acting, painting, reading, music.

On innovation: "Creativity lies at the interface of discipline and chaos."

On completing a successful launch: "Like birth, it is essential but insufficient."

On the future: "For years I could think of nothing better than managing a flight to Mars. Now I've done it and I'm ready for something else."

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