As manager of the Mars Exploration Program, Donna Shirley became famous last July when the Pathfinder safely landed on the Red Planet and its rover bounced its way into American history.

But after shattering one glass ceiling after another during her 31-year career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Shirley stepped down from her post last week. She will continue to work with the Mars program in an emeritus capacity, but intends to pursue other career interests.

Born and raised in a small Oklahoma town in the 1940s and '50s, Shirley didn't shatter the stereotypical female mold she just disregarded it. In high school, she skipped home economics in favor of mechanical drawing. She got her pilot's license at age 16. At the University of Oklahoma, she was one of a handful of women engineering students.

After a brief stint as a technical writer at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, Shirley moved to JPL in 1966 to become its first female engineer. Later, she was manager of the team that built the Sojourner rover, the whimsical vehicle that bounced along the Martian landscape in a large plastic bubble. Shirley's work with Sojourner earned her the management position for the entire Mars Exploration Program in 1994, making her JPL's highest-ranking woman on the technical side.

After the successful landing of the Pathfinder, Shirley was named "Woman of the Year" by Ms. magazine and even had a comet named after her. This July, Shirley had her autobiography, "Managing Martians," published by a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

Question: Why are you stepping down from your position at JPL?

Answer: Where do you go after you go to Mars after trying to get there for over 30 years? It's like being the first person up Mount Everest. What do you do for your next trick? I decided it was time to move on and pursue my other interests. Actually, I'm so booked up for the rest of the year with speaking engagements that I had to calm things down. Also, I'm not leaving JPL entirely. I will be an on-call employee and I'll come back for the launches and landings. I'll get to see the fun part. I'll just be missing the day-to-day activities.

Q: So what's next for you?

A: I've become very interested in management issues. I got frustrated by the lack of practical management books and I think there is a lot of disservice with the management fads and quick fixes out there. So I wrote a book on management, I'm doing a lot of lecturing and consulting on it, and a partner and I are teaching a class on it here at JPL. I also want to work on my Ph.D. (in management from the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara), which I've been stumbling along with for the last year without much progress.


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.