By April Wilkerson
The Journal Record
Posted: Monday, November 1, 2010
Donna Shirley at her Tulsa home. Shirley was a pioneer in the United States’ space exploration, managing the Mars Exploration Program in the 1990s and helping put Pathfinder, Sojourner and other probes into space. (Rip Stell)
TULSA – As the manager of the Mars Exploration Program in the 1990s, Donna Shirley learned a thing or two about leading highly intelligent people charged with sending groundbreaking technology into outer space.
Today, Shirley has turned that experience into a book, Managing Creativity, and she operates a consulting firm to guide others on managing creative teams.
Shirley, who lives in Tulsa, has been part of America’s and Oklahoma’s seminal moments in aerospace engineering and aerospace education, and she continues to leverage her experience and wit to make a difference.
“A lot of people think creativity is about coming up with this great idea; that’s only part of it,” Shirley said. “You have to actually do something with it. That’s why you see a lot of startup businesses fail. They have great ideas, but they don’t know how to follow through with all the dull and dirty processes you have to do to actually make something work. There’s a lot of paying attention to dull things like budgets and schedules and managing issues between people – all those sort of things that aren’t fun, especially to engineers and scientists.”
But doing those things was how Shirley made her mark on America’s exploration of outer space with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Her work began in the 1960s as an aerodynamicist, when she developed concepts that paved the way for subsequent successful designs for the Viking, Pioneer Venus, Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rover missions. Her work continued over the decades, and from 1992-1994 she led the team that developed Sojourner Truth, the $25 million Microrover landed by Mars Pathfinder on July 4, 1997. From 1994-1998, she managed the $150-million-a-year Mars Exploration Program, which included the Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions, plus two additional missions to Mars every 26 months for several years thereafter. She also did much of her work during a time when female engineers, especially at that level, were few.
“When we were successful in our landing, it was second only to the birth of my daughter in terms of events that were great in my life,” she said. “It was pretty cool.”
Today, Shirley keeps up with space exploration, particularly involving Mars. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity are the only two functioning robotics now on Mars, and Shirley said she’s not sure that Spirit will survive the winter. The investment of time and skill with the technology still gives her a personal connection.
“I was the mother to Sojourner, the little rover, so I consider myself the grandmother of Spirit and Opportunity,” she said. “If we had never done Sojourner, people would never have been convinced you could make a rover work on Mars and we would never have flown a rover.”
Shirley also remains committed to the concept of space exploration. Humans are wired to seek out new frontiers, she said, but doing so can help us avoid some problems on Earth.
“For example, a very early mission, Mariner 2, discovered that Venus had this very thick, horrible atmosphere, and it was the result of the greenhouse effect,” she said. “That was where the greenhouse effect was discovered, and we wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. Not that we’re doing anything very intelligent about it, but at least we now understand more or less what’s going on. So you find out things about other planets that are useful in understanding Earth.
“People also say, ‘Is space worth all the money we’re spending on it?’ If you look at it just in terms of dollars and cents, no it’s not,” she said. “We’re never going to make enough money off space exploration to have a payback in any sort of early time frame. People nowadays think of rate of return and early payback. Well, you’re not going to get that. There are now companies trying desperately to make money off space. It’s just like the railroad industry was not viable until the government funded railroads across the country. The government has to do things that are not economically viable in order to get the infrastructure in place. The government is going to have to spend money to develop these new technologies before anybody is going to be able to privately invest enough money to where you get a rate of return that’s worth it.”
Shirley also left her mark on the aerospace program at the University of Oklahoma. After retiring from Jet Propulsion Laboratories, she spent 1999 to 2003 at OU as an instructor of aerospace mechanical engineering and as assistant dean of the College of Engineering. She also was brought on board to guide a strategic plan.
But the aerospace engineering program at OU first had to survive. Student interest had dropped, and the university planned to cancel the program. There was an outcry, especially from OU aerospace alumni, she said, so they struck a deal to keep the program alive. Shirley was given the task of updating the curriculum to make it more relevant for today’s students. She earned her own bachelor’s degree in aerospace mechanical engineering from OU in 1965, so Shirley was glad to infuse the program with new knowledge and energy.
Tom Landers, dean of OU’s College of Engineering, said students were drawn to Shirley’s aerospace accomplishments and her motivating and energetic personality. Shirley remains an active alumna, both as a financial benefactor and a supporter, including helping to coordinate the College of Engineering’s centennial celebration last year.
“She’s a real idea person and brings a lot of vitality to the college through her ideas and participation,” Landers said. “I also team taught a course with her, Systems Engineering, and she brings not just technical experience but also fascinating experience to the classroom that the students enjoy.”
Shirley wrote a book about her work on the Mars Exploration Program, titled Managing Martians. She’s now revising and indexing her follow-up book about management, Managing Creativity. For information about her activities, visit www.managingcreativity.com