skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley

Manager, Mars Exploration Program, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Ret.)

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

January 31, 2024

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, January 31st, 2024. It's my great pleasure to be here with Donna Shirley. Donna, wonderful to be with you. Thank you for joining me.

DONNA SHIRLEY: You're welcome!

ZIERLER: To start, please tell me your most recent title and institutional affiliation before you retired.

SHIRLEY: I was the Manager of the Mars Exploration Program at JPL, and it included at least contact with other centers, although I don't think I was in charge of the other centers. Before that, I was in charge of the NASA Robotics Program, and that had all the centers involved. After I retired from JPL, I was an assistant dean of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma for four years. Then I went to Seattle because my daughter lived there, and I ended up managing the building of the Paul Allen Science Fiction Museum. I did that for a year.

ZIERLER: How did you come to that?

SHIRLEY: A long story, but I love science fiction, and I have hundreds of science fiction books. Somehow or other somebody found out that I was a science fiction person and they asked me to lead this project. They had a contractor who did all the work, and I just organized things and interfaced with people and stuff like that. It was very interesting. Now there is a science fiction museum in Seattle, which is no longer the one I built, because when Paul Allen died, his sister Jody took over, and she really made it into a horror museum [laughs], which was not my idea of what Paul would have wanted. At any rate, that was much later! Now, I don't do anything! I'm retired. My partner and I live in a Jewish retirement center. I am not Jewish—neither of us is Jewish—but about half the people here are Jewish, so it's very interesting.

ZIERLER: Where in the world are you? Where is the retirement center?

SHIRLEY: In Tulsa, Oklahoma.

ZIERLER: Aha, okay! You're back home, to some degree?

SHIRLEY: Yes, a few hundred miles away from where I grew up. My daughter and her husband and their two boys live here, her husband's sister and her husband and their two kids live here, so we've got a pretty good family.

ZIERLER: Oh, that's nice. Are you connected still to JPL? Do you keep in touch with colleagues?

SHIRLEY: Most of my colleagues are either dead or have retired and disappeared, but I do keep in touch with some of them, and we usually have monthly Zoom calls just to keep in touch with each other. They're all still in Southern California. I do get the Universe, which is the JPL newsletter, so I read that every month. I've been in contact with Laurie Leshin, who I was incredibly pleased to see that they have a woman [laughs] director of JPL, because it was pretty much unheard of a long time ago. In fact, I think I have it in the book, but when I came out to California, I planned to do my master's at Caltech and was told, no, we don't admit women.

ZIERLER: You anticipated my question. I was going to ask, when you started at JPL, in your wildest dreams could you ever have imagined a woman director of JPL?

SHIRLEY: I don't think anybody could have. As far as I know, I was the only female engineer out of a couple of thousand at JPL. That has now changed. There's a lot of women here. It's very refreshing and amazing. I watch all the landings and the little videos that JPL puts out about what's going on. Just recently they had to retire the Ingenuity helicopter, which was very sad, but it reminded me of the little rover that was the thing that I ran, because it was funded by the technology people at NASA and it far outperformed whatever was expected of it. And it's cute! [laughs]

ZIERLER: Do you follow closely current Mars exploration, Mars Sample Return for example, which everyone is so excited about?

SHIRLEY: Absolutely. I get online with NASA all the time and get the latest stuff.

ZIERLER: Could you see in your career the sequence from the origins of the rover program to now thinking about Mars Sample Return? Can you see that play out chapter by chapter?

SHIRLEY: Yes, because I was on a number of committees that did designs for future human missions and for the kind of robotic missions that would have to take place to get ready for humans to go. I was very involved in all of that planning. In fact, I lived in Crystal City for a while, and then I also—which is not in the book—put together a team that looked at NASA's management structure and made recommendations, which all the center directors absolutely hated! [laughs] Dick Truly, who was the administrator at the time, liked me, so it went all right. I don't think they ever made any of the big changes. But at JPL, to have Caltech go for a female director was pretty astounding.

ZIERLER: The extraordinary engineering feat that Mars Sample Return will require, what's the big takeaway from you? Why is it worth it?

SHIRLEY: That's a very good question! There's many ways that they've looked at the way to do it. The one that seems to be living right now is that they want to build a base on the Moon and then fly from the Moon to Mars. In my opinion that doesn't make much sense, because they will spend so much money going to the Moon that they won't have anything left over for a long time to go to Mars. But, they keep at it. The things that they're proposing to do in terms of making a habitat on the Moon and where they're going to land, first they have to find out if indeed there is water at the pole of the Moon and how they'd deal with that, but the obstacles are humungous [laughs] there. It's really going to be very, very difficult. Then going to Mars and actually managing to live on Mars is another hugely difficult thing. So, it will be awhile.

ZIERLER: Do you see Mars Sample Return as a necessary first step ultimately to human exploration of Mars?

SHIRLEY: I think so, because although the modern rovers, Perseverance and Curiosity, are marvelous machines—the kind of stuff they can do is just incredible—the scientists are really convinced that they need to see samples of Mars before they would say, hey, it has got this, or it has got that, or whatever. I have to trust the scientists. I'm an engineer, not a scientist! [laughs]

ZIERLER: We talked about engineering challenges. Of course right now JPL is experiencing a budgetary challenge, too.

SHIRLEY: [laughs] What's new?

ZIERLER: That's right, that's right. My question is, you've lived through budgetary challenges before—

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah.

ZIERLER: —for people who are concerned, what would you tell them? What's the advice that you would give them where you have the long view that ultimately things are going to be okay?

SHIRLEY: Well, gosh, I don't know—that things are going to be okay. It's so incredibly—you've followed through my book just the difficulty of getting one lander on Mars. It's tough stuff. Right now, the budget situation is kind of crazy. A lot depends on who is elected president. It's just going to be as usual—there's never enough money, and you have to skimp and scrape and be clever and be as smart as you can be. But it's not easy.

ZIERLER: What is the case to be made that for all of the budgetary pressures, this is worth funding? How would you put it?

SHIRLEY: There are several reasons to go to Mars and to send people to Mars. The popular one is, gosh, we're going to destroy the Earth so we've got to get another planet to live on, which in my opinion is silly [laughs] because it's a lot cheaper to save the Earth than it is to build humanity on Mars. But it's very difficult. It's just gonna be darn hard. We keep chipping away at it. We've been chipping away at Mars since 1964, I think. I think 1962 was the first flyby. I've forgotten what it was. At any rate we've been chipping away, for years and years and years, just a little at a time, finding out more about the planet, finding out more about it. Sending samples back is kind of the penultimate way of finding out enough about Mars that people would feel comfortable actually living there. Maybe. Because even if we get a few rocks back, that doesn't tell you what the whole planet is going to be like. It's going to be really challenging.

ZIERLER: Let's hope it happens.

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah. I'm in favor of it. I've been in favor of it for many years! But it's not going to be easy. Of course, the problem is always the politics and the budgets and the competence of the people at NASA headquarters, which is not always very high. At JPL, the competence is almost always very high. I may be prejudiced, but JPL people are marvelous. They can just do incredible stuff. Most of the real problems we had with the Pathfinder mission, for example, was from NASA, and from the budget. It was either the budget and they weren't managing the budget right, or other centers wanted the money or whatever. There's all this political stuff that goes on. The more the budget increases to get a sample return or get a human mission to Mars, the harder it is, so it's not easy.

ZIERLER: Let's go back and establish some personal history for you. Tell me about where you grew up and where your family is from.

SHIRLEY: My family is mostly from northern Europe, in the beginning. I'm 1/32 Chickasaw, so my ancestors have been here a long time. It's not enough to get me any money [laughs] but I do have some oil wells, little teeny bits of oil wells, that bring in a little bit of nice-to-have money. My ancestors are mostly from England and Ireland and Scotland and Germany. We have been here a long time. Other than the Indians, we've been here since the 1600s in various bits and pieces of the family. My great grandfather was a Pennsylvania Dutch, and he and his family came over and settled in Pennsylvania. He had a job—and I didn't fully understand it, but it was somehow where he had to travel a lot, back and forth, between the Indian Territory and Pennsylvania and places like that. He married the daughter of the first governor of the Chickasaw Nation whose name was Cyrus Harris, who came over the Trail of Tears and established himself in Oklahoma—which wasn't Oklahoma in those days; it was the Indian Territory. Originally, they settled someplace which was on the main road where everybody came and went, but my great great grandmother got tired of having to make meals for everybody who dropped by, so they moved to Wynnewood, Oklahoma, which is in the south central part of Oklahoma, just on the other side of the Washita River. That's where I grew up. The family was there. There's nobody much left except me, and I have a cousin who lives in Oklahoma City. He's even more aged than I am. He's four years older than I am. The rest of us, we're all pretty much—that's it!

ZIERLER: What were your parents' professions?

SHIRLEY: My father was a doctor. He was in the Navy during World War II on a ship and was a ship's doctor. He was stationed in Japan after the War for a couple of years. Then we moved to California. My mother had moved us to California on the chance that he would get shore leave and she could meet him there in Seal Beach, California. But my grandmother had a bad heart, and so she insisted that my father had to move back to Wynnewood to take care of her, so we moved to Wynnewood and that's where I grew up.

ZIERLER: You didn't really meet your father until you were a few years old?

SHIRLEY: Oh, no, I met him but—I have a picture of him in his uniform with me holding his hand—but he went off to War in I think 1943 or 1944, and I was three or four years old at the time. In fact, we have a family story about we were waiting for him to come home on the train, so my mother and I went down and stood in the train station for a very long time, and finally I said, "Mama, let's go home, and let the Navy keep Daddy."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: He eventually came back, so we grew up in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, population 2,500.

ZIERLER: Was he the town doctor?

SHIRLEY: Yes! There were two of them, he and Dr. M.E. Robberson. His name was Edward Thornton Shirley. My grandmother lived in Wynnewood because that was basically where the Indian oil was, and she married a guy named Shirley, Thornton Shirley. I've never really known much about his background, but he wasn't an Indian. So, that's where we were. As it says in the book, I grew up in population-2,500 Wynnewood, got a degree at OU, and ended up in California at JPL!

ZIERLER: Was the community an agricultural community?

SHIRLEY: Primarily, yes. Its big deal was cotton. I once spent one day picking cotton and I swore I'd never try to pick cotton again! [laughs] It's the most backbreaking work imaginable. My grandfather, who was my grandmother's second husband, owned the cotton gin, and so he was one of the town's leading citizens. The population of the town was always about 2,500. Then the boll weevil came. When the boll weevil ate up the cotton, the farming community went down but they built an oil refinery. The oil refinery is still there. It used to be the Kerr-McGee Oil Refinery. I think it's just the Wynnewood Oil Refinery now. The town is the same size, same kind of people, and it continues.

ZIERLER: Were there African Americans in the town? Was it segregated?

SHIRLEY: It was segregated until 1956, and they had their own church. We had Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ, I think. Methodist and Baptist, we had a white church and a Black church. Then we had Black schools and white schools. In 1956, we were integrated. [laughs] At the time, it was about when I think Governor Wallace was causing all the trouble and refusing to allow the Black kids to go to school and so on. I wrote a letter to The Saturday Evening Post, and I said, "We have Black kids at our school, and we get along just fine. Nobody has any desire to integrate other than just to go to school together. We play sports together. Everything is fine. If the adults would just stay out of it, we'd be all right!"

ZIERLER: [laughs] That sounds great.

SHIRLEY: I got hate mail, from all over the South! I didn't tell my parents that I had sent this letter, so my mother said, "Why are you getting all this mail?" I said, "Pen pals."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: But it's very well integrated now. Of course the Black kids are better athletes for the most part than the white kids, so they became the football heroes, and that was the main game. In Oklahoma, football is everything.

ZIERLER: Growing up, were you inclined toward engineering? Did you like to build things and take them apart?

SHIRLEY: Yes. I always built model airplanes and I hung them from the ceiling in my room. When I was 10, my mother took me to my uncle's graduation from medical school, and on the program it said, "aeronautical engineering." I asked her what that was, and she said, "Oh, that's people who build airplanes." I said, "Oh, that's what I want to be." So I did.

ZIERLER: Did anyone tell you or were you ever made to feel like this was not for girls, that girls should do dolls and dress-up and things like that?

SHIRLEY: Oh, endlessly. But I'm a very stubborn person. When I was in high school, for example, girls were supposed to take home economics, and I took mechanical drawing. Because my father was a big wheel in town—of 2,500 people—he had a lot of push, or pull, and people would pretty much kowtow to the Shirley family, so I was allowed to take mechanical drawing instead of home economics. I did have to take typing. I made two B's in high school; one was in algebra two, and the other was in typing. To this day, I'm a terrible typist.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Your parents were encouraging? They wanted you to pursue your interest in engineering.

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. My father would have preferred that I would go into medicine, but when I said no, I want to be an engineer, they said fine. He bought me flying lessons when I was 15 and paid for my flying all the way through college. Unfortunately once I graduated and he wasn't paying for flying anymore [laughs] I couldn't afford it! So I haven't flown since.

ZIERLER: How many kids or just a rough proportion of kids from the high school went on to college? Was it a small amount?

SHIRLEY: Very small. I think there were two of us originally. My best friend and I went to college. I think she went to the local teachers college in Ada, Oklahoma. I went to OU. My mother had taken me on a tour of the best engineering colleges. We looked at MIT, we looked at Georgia Tech, and so on. It was quite obvious—well, for one thing, there was no grass. They were in cities, and I was not used to cities, being a really small-town girl. On top of that, I would have immediately flunked out of any of those schools. I sort of made it through OU, but it was [laughs] not easy.

ZIERLER: How far away was Norman from where you grew up?

SHIRLEY: Seventy-five miles.

ZIERLER: Did it feel like a big city to you?


ZIERLER: Norman and OU.

SHIRLEY: Yeah. Well, we didn't spend much time in Norman. We were mostly on campus the whole time, so it was pretty much just OU. Now later, when I was assistant dean of Engineering at OU, then I spent much more time in the city itself. But no, after having lived for 33 years in L.A. [laughs] it didn't seem very big.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Did you study engineering from the beginning when you got to OU? Was that your plan?

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah. I enrolled—in fact, I think I put it in the book—but I enrolled in engineering, aeronautical engineering, because there was no aerospace at the time. It was pre-space. I went into my instructor's office, and he said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I want to major in engineering." He says, "Girls can't be engineers." I said, "Yes, I can." And so, I did. But it was a struggle. I was not a great student. I had times when I was a good student, but there was other times when I was not that great a student. Then I fell in love and discovered boys for the first time, and I was in a sorority and had lots of sorority things to do, and so on. I ended up getting engaged and then getting not-engaged, and in order to graduate quickly, because we were going to get married, I changed my major to journalism, professional writing. So, my first degree was in professional writing. I came back from Saint Louis, which is where I had been working as a specification writer, and came back to OU, finished the engineering degree, went back to Saint Louis, and ended up working on a proposal for a Mars project. Then JPL advertised for somebody to come and work on the Mars project, so I did.

ZIERLER: Did you recognize that JPL was the place to do this work? Did it already have that reputation in your mind?

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah, it was well established, because they were doing all sorts of space stuff, and it was in the news all the time. It was pre-internet, so I couldn't follow the stuff the way you can now, but it was—to die for.

ZIERLER: What year did you arrive in California?

SHIRLEY: 1962, I think.

ZIERLER: Wow. Was the plan to go for the graduate degree in engineering at the same time?

SHIRLEY: Yes, that was required. I had been working at Saint Louis University on a master's degree at night school, but when you get to JPL, if you don't have one you have to go get a master's. So, I went to night school at the University of Southern California and got a master's that way.

ZIERLER: Was Caltech an option? Could you have gone to Caltech?

SHIRLEY: Nooooo. Caltech did not accept women. No, no, no. [laughs]

ZIERLER: That's embarrassing. [laughs]

SHIRLEY: It is. It's pretty embarrassing. There was actually a woman scientist at JPL named Marcia Neugebauer, and her husband was a professor at Caltech, and she couldn't go to Caltech [laughs] to get her PhD either, because they didn't accept women.

ZIERLER: Fascinating. I thought there were women graduate students, but I guess that they must have had to make special exceptions.

SHIRLEY: No, that was later.

ZIERLER: That was later?

SHIRLEY: Yeah. I'm not sure when Caltech actually—I've forgotten.

ZIERLER: Women undergraduates started—it became coed in 1970. But there were women graduate students prior to that.

SHIRLEY: Really!

ZIERLER: But maybe only in certain programs. Maybe it was not available across the board.

SHIRLEY: Yeah, I don't know. All I know is that they wouldn't let me major in engineering.

ZIERLER: It was USC night school, because obviously you had to be at JPL during the day?

SHIRLEY: That's right.

ZIERLER: This is the height of the Cold War. This is the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. What was it like? Could you feel the Cold War at JPL? Did it have a military, national security feel to it at all?

SHIRLEY: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. It was very open. It was much later that it became much more militarized, and now it's very hard to get on Lab, and things like that. But no. It had a gate—you had to go through the gate and everything—but it wasn't—in fact, we had no military work at all until some years later. Then the NASA business kind of went downhill, and so JPL accepted some military work. In fact, I worked on a project to study whether we could make the military spacecraft more autonomous. We put a lot of work into that and put out a report and said, "Hey, yeah, you can save these spacecraft for much longer if you put in autonomy," which was pretty crude in those days but was doable. They said, "No, if we have any extra payload, it goes into instruments." So it didn't go anywhere.

ZIERLER: What directorate were you assigned to initially?

SHIRLEY: I was in 351, I think. It's not a directorate. In the technical divisions, it's broken down by—Division 35, for instance, was mechanical and electrical, I think. Then Division 32 was science. Division 33 was telecommunications. I was in the mechanical division. The section was 351, I think.

ZIERLER: What were the big projects at that time? What did you work on?

SHIRLEY: I didn't work on any big projects. I worked on studies, was mostly what I did. The NASA budget got slashed at the time when I was a junior person in our group, so I was laid off because I was the junior person. So, I worked for this very odd little company that was run by a Caltech graduate. It turned out, after I was there for six months I think, I realized that he was making his living by cheating the government, by claiming things that were wrong. Like we analyzed aerodynamics of flight vehicles, and if you did it very simply, it turned out it would work, but if you put more equations into it, it turned out it wouldn't work. I told him that, and so he put me in charge of proposals. Every week, I would have to write a proposal for something and submit it to the Commerce Business Daily. Since I was the only person writing proposals and the company was very, very small—it was like 20 people—we never got anything. When I discovered how he was making his living—he had basically cheated the Army, then he cheated the Navy, and he was just in the process of cheating the Air Force—I discovered this, and so I quit. I went back to JPL and since I still had friends at JPL, they helped me get a job at JPL.

ZIERLER: What did you focus on for your master's degree? What kind of engineering did you do at USC?

SHIRLEY: It was aerospace, looking at airplanes. In those days, there were spacecraft but—most of the courses were aeronautics courses. I can't even remember them very well. That was a very long time ago!

ZIERLER: Did you ever think about staying on for the PhD?

SHIRLEY: Yes. In fact, a few years ago, I started going to an online school called Grand Canyon University. It was all online except once or twice a year we would go to Phoenix and do some together stuff. I went all the way through the coursework, and then said, okay, I have an agreement to do a PhD degree, a PhD thesis. I was going to interview people at JPL and develop a process for managing projects. I was told I couldn't do that. So I said, "I don't need a PhD anyway!" [laughs] Now on my resume it says ABD, all but dissertation.

ZIERLER: That's close! Tell me about coming back to JPL. What did you work on at that point?

SHIRLEY: You mean after I got laid off?


SHIRLEY: I was working on some very difficult trajectory analysis. Don Green, my office mate was working on an automated drug identification machine, a system. He was very bored with what he was doing, and I was very bored with what I was doing, so we went to our group supervisor and said, "Can we switch?" So I worked on an automated drug identification machine, and he worked on interplanetary travel, and we were both very happy.

ZIERLER: This might sound like an ancient-sounding question, but just walking around JPL in those early years, did people assume you must have been a secretary?

SHIRLEY: Sometimes. But there were actually people who were called computers, because they ran the Friden calculators that did all the navigation calculations. So, there were women at JPL that were secretaries and then women that were these computers. Later, when I was managing the mission design section, these women all worked for me. It was really weird because you'd go in, and when they were taking square roots with the calculators, with the Friden calculators, it was so deafening. You know—chh-g! chh-g! chh-g! It was really hard to be in there. But they were very smart people. Some of them had math degrees and some of them didn't have degrees at all. That was pre computers.

ZIERLER: Were you expected to wear a dress or a skirt to work?

SHIRLEY: Oh, I always did. In fact, I went there during the miniskirt era, so we wore these really short skirts. When I would go to NASA, they would be pretty scandalized, because in California we wore miniskirts, but in Washington, D.C. it was kind of frowned on! [laughs] But yes, we all wore dresses to work. I can't remember when we started wearing pants. There was a time when I didn't have any dresses hardly at all and wore pantsuits all the time.

ZIERLER: Did you contribute or did you see JPL contributions to the Apollo program?

SHIRLEY: Not exactly. JPL was asked to do some work—no, that was for Space Station. No, I didn't work on the Apollo program at all. Although I had a friend who was the guy who was the chief engineer for the Apollo program and was felt to be responsible for the three astronauts that burned up. He never really recovered from that.

ZIERLER: What was the day of the Moon landing like for you in 1969? Were you on Lab? Were you at JPL?

SHIRLEY: No, I think I was at home watching it on TV. But yeah, it was cool! Very cool. I actually knew quite a few of the astronauts of that time. I knew Buzz Aldrin fairly well. I met Neil Armstrong once. I knew Scott Carpenter and some of the others. I knew the early astronauts because I ended up doing work for the human space program, which never really worked very well. That's a different story, but we were into robotics. For the Space Station, they were going to have to build it with robots and maintain it with robots, and so we were trying to get a piece of the action to build what was called a flight telerobotic servicer. That was much later. [laughs] Our director at the time was a four-star general named Lew Allen. I was doing the robotics program at the time. He and I wrote a proposal to a guy named John Hodge, who was running the study of the Space Station at the time. We said we would like to build or be responsible for the robots. JPL was not highly regarded by the civil service centers. In fact, they hated us. They wanted to have a lot of money so they could pay contractors, so the more money they got, the more contractors they got, the better off they were. We were a contractor ourselves, and we did most of our stuff in-house, although we did have a lot of contracts, too. But we were not very popular. Right after we made this proposal to handle the flight telerobotic servicer, all of a sudden Goddard Space Flight Center, who had not been interested in it at all, said, "Oh, we'll take it." [laughs] So, we were rudely thrust aside, and Goddard had the robotics program. It turned out just as well because they never funded it adequately and the whole thing never got built. The flight telerobotic servicer never got built. But that was much later.

ZIERLER: What was your entrée to planetary exploration? Was it the Mariner program?

SHIRLEY: Yeah, Mariner 10. Mariner Venus-Mercury was my first flight project. It had one small spacecraft and $98 million to do a flyby of Venus and use gravity-assist from Venus to go to Mercury. [laughs] I had a falling-out with my group supervisor, and in the process the section manager said, "Well, I can either fire you or promote you, so I've decided to promote you."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: I said, "Okay, I would like to be the mission analyst for the project." He said, "Okay." So, I did all of the analysis to find out what was the best day to launch on. It took me a year. Because there were seven science experiments on this poor little spacecraft, and every scientist wanted to do something different. It turned out, after much, much, much analysis, there was one day that was the best day to launch on, and we ended up launching on that day. That was my first big accomplishment at JPL.

ZIERLER: A year's worth of calculations, what did you need to figure out?

SHIRLEY: Well, you say, okay, the camera, the imager, wants to fly close to it on the daylight side. Because Mercury's always half lit and half dark. The particle and field people wanted to fly way outside there so they could pick up whatever particles and fields were coming off of the planet. The seven scientists, they all wanted different things, so I had to analyze what would happen if we flew this trajectory or that trajectory or the other trajectory. It turned out that there was a specific launch date that would maximize that particular set, the gestalt of all of those things. That's what I worked on, and had lots of interactions with the scientists. Scientists and engineers have a funny relationship because scientists want the results and engineers have to build the stuff to get them the results. It was a very interesting project. And it worked!

ZIERLER: Was anyone talking about Voyager? Did Voyager come as a result of Mariner 10?

SHIRLEY: Which Voyager?

ZIERLER: The Voyager mission that was launched in 1977.

SHIRLEY: No, we were just doing Mars and Venus, and then we did Mercury.

ZIERLER: But conceptually, the idea of having a spacecraft to do a flyby of multiple planets, did you need a Mariner 10—?

SHIRLEY: It was called the Grand Tour, and it was going to fly by all the planets. Then the budget was cut, and so they—I can't remember—I didn't work on the Grand Tour. I think I was a section manager about that time. It's hard to remember! I've been at so many places and done so many things. They had two spacecraft and one of them was going to—oh! No, I guess I worked on it, because the people who did the navigation were in my section, so I had to review their work, which was impossible because it was really difficult to understand. In fact, in Mariner 10, which was the first gravity-assist mission ever flown, the navigators worked it all out, it had never been done before, and we were having a review, and my section manager was mad at the navigators because he couldn't understand what they were doing! He made some really negative comments about them and then he stormed out. So I stormed out, and I was gonna kill him! [laughs] He was picking on my navigators! But he had gone home by that time. That's when later on well, if he couldn't understand it, then he has to depend on the people who can understand it. We had probably the world's best navigators at JPL. I'm sure we still do have the world's best navigators.

ZIERLER: Did you ever interact with Bruce Murray for Mariner 10?

SHIRLEY: Oh my gosh, yes! [laughs] Very much so.

ZIERLER: What was he like?

SHIRLEY: Oh, he was a complete jerk! Everybody knew he was a complete jerk. Very arrogant. He was the head of the camera team. In the process of getting all these things to see which was the best launch date, I had to interview all the principal investigators and find out what they wanted and how they wanted it and why they wanted it and so on, and integrate all that, and came up with this one best launch date. In the process, I interacted a lot with Bruce. One of the famous things was we were having a big review—Boeing was the spacecraft manager, was the spacecraft developer—and, this big review, maybe 500 people in the room or something like that. I'm up there presenting this analysis that I had been doing. I had been working with Bruce for a year or two, and he kept picking on me! "What does this mean?" "Why is that?" Finally, I said, "Bruce, are you too stupid to understand what this is?" [laughs] And this hush fell over the room. [laughs] Then I went on, and he never said a word. So, when he became director of JPL, I got a little nervous.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: But it turns out that we got along really well and we're good friends. We were in Caltech plays together. [laughs] We always got along really well after that. It was too bad; he died of Alzheimer's.

ZIERLER: You were involved in Caltech drama?

SHIRLEY: Yes, it was great fun. My daughter and I went to a Caltech play one time, and she says, "There's kids in that play! I want to be in Caltech plays." We said, "Okay." The first play was called Working, based on a book by Studs Terkel. She was only 11, so she got on as an extra. But I got a singing part! [laughs] I was a school teacher. So, here I am, in my school teacher outfit, just with a sweater over my shoulders, and I get out, and who is in the front row but Bruce Murray [laughs] and his wife! I've got this rather complicated song to sing [laughs], and I'll tell you, I was a little flustered. Anyway I was in several Caltech plays. They were a lot of fun. I was in a Shakespeare play where I played a tavern wench. I was in Hello Dolly as a dancer. We did a Stephen Sondheim play called Assassins. I don't know if you're familiar with that. I wanted my daughter and I to have two singing parts, but she wanted to be in high school plays at the time, so I was just in the chorus. But that was a fun thing, because—I don't know if you're familiar with the play or not, probably not, but it's about people who assassinated presidents. They gave the point of view of the assassins, and then they would hang them or electrocute them [laughs] on stage. It was all done with Caltech students or JPL people. It was a lot of fun.

ZIERLER: Donna, what was launch day like for you for Mariner 10? Where were you?

SHIRLEY: I was in the control room at the Cape. Because one of my jobs was to sit next to the range control officer and convince him that he should not blow up the spacecraft. They had this guy from the military who's there, because if he sees the launch vehicle going off in some awful direction where it might impact people, his job is to blow it up. My job was to convince him that everything was fine, everything was fine, there's no reason to blow up the [laughs] spacecraft, no reason to blow up the launch vehicle! Then it worked fine.

ZIERLER: What was next for you after Mariner 10?

SHIRLEY: Oh, Lord. Let's see, what did I do after Mariner 10? I can't even remember.

ZIERLER: What were the earliest discussions about Mars exploration? When did you get involved in that?

SHIRLEY: There were all these different—I didn't work on Viking, which was—there was Mariner 2, Mariner 4, and so on, so there were two or three Mars missions which I didn't work on any of them because I was either not there yet or was involved in Mariner 10. Then I did this first project which was to try to develop an automated drug identification system, which we couldn't do. It didn't work. We worked on it. My job there was to go around to crime labs all over the country and find out how many samples a day do they need, what kind of drugs do they have to analyze for, and so on. I had a lot of experience with that kind of analysis of how many—if we built a system, how many samples per day does it have to analyze, how many different kinds of drugs does it have to look for, and so on. I came up with it had to do 40 samples a day and it had to analyze this set of drugs. Unfortunately, we were doing infrared spectrometry as the technology, and we couldn't make it work. It turns out that they then went—somebody, I can't remember who, went to gas chromatography, and that worked. Infrared didn't work, so we just lost that.

At one point I was managing the mission design section, so I did that for a while. Then I led a study to look at automation and robotics for the Air Force and got involved in robotics, which I knew nothing about. Then they wanted me to lead the robotics program because the people who knew something about robotics didn't want to manage. I had to learn enough about robotics that I could manage this program. It ended up being a NASA-wide program. Everybody was very successful—we were very happy about it—but the NASA administrator at the time, who was an idiot in my opinion, decided that no, he didn't want to focus on that, because he was focused on human space exploration. Then I worked on the Space Station for a while, and I worked on—what else did I work on? A lot of different stuff.

ZIERLER: When did people start to seriously think about a rover on Mars?

SHIRLEY: Oh! Well, there was a rover program, but they were mostly looking at road following, for instance. Nobody was much looking at offroad vehicles, because they were funded by the military. There were two sets of people at JPL. There was one set that was working on one particular technique, and then another set was working on another particular technique. That's in the book. There was all this conflict, and it was always difficult to get enough money to pay for both sets, so JPL ended up managing poorly in my opinion and basically drove the one set of them away and gave the money to the other set. Then that turned into the automation and robotics program for NASA. I ended up leading a group that integrated all of those, everybody's stuff that they were doing. I did that for a while, and then I worked as a project engineer for Cassini. This was before it was Cassini. I did that for a while, doing kind of the same thing I did for Mars, looking at the different science—what do they want to do, what's feasible, and so on. Then they actually started up a robotics program for NASA, and they asked me to come back and run that, so I did. That turned into the little rover that went on Pathfinder.

ZIERLER: What was the state of the art in autonomy and robotics that allowed for Pathfinder and Sojourner?

SHIRLEY: Pathfinder was using a lot of Viking technology. Viking had been successful at orbiting and landing spacecraft in 1976, I think. But they wanted to do it very cheaply. Ames Research Center claimed that they could build things to land on Mars for $100 million or something ridiculously small. There was this big battle between Ames and JPL. Because we were the planetary center, we won. They wanted to land things all over so they could analyze the weather and see—it was mostly a weather mission. Then they said, well, we don't have enough money to do that, so we'll do a demonstration project. That was Pathfinder. They got Tony Spear to lead that and gave him way too little money [laughs]. In the meantime, I had proposed for $25 million to build a small rover that could go on, could land with Pathfinder. Of course Tony didn't like that at all, and half the book is about all the battles that he and I had about that.

ZIERLER: I must interject at this point. There was serious consideration of a Mars lander in the 1990s absent a rover?

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah!

ZIERLER: What would have been the purpose of that? They had already done this for Viking. Why would they do it again?

SHIRLEY: Because Viking was $2 billion and Pathfinder was $100 million. So, can we do this cheaply? Because if we could do it cheaply, then we could do a whole bunch of these things and explore Mars. Charles Elachi, who was a manager at JPL at the time—I can't remember how much Charles had to do with it, because I thought I sold it, but he thinks he sold it—at any rate, between the two of us, we got $25 million to build a little rover. Tony didn't like that at all, but after much sturm and drang, we ended up flying the rover. That's all in the book.

ZIERLER: Did you ever talk with Ed Stone about this? Did you have to convince Ed?

SHIRLEY: Oh, many, many times, and Ed was extremely unhelpful. Ed turns out not to be my favorite person. That's when I was doing the Mars Exploration Program and running the program office. Because we were just having a lot of trouble with NASA, getting money to do rovers, and Ed would not stand up to NASA for us. That was in the Dan Goldin stage—better, faster, cheaper; pick two. He was browbeating Ed, but later—we had two missions in 1998. Pathfinder was successful, Mars Global Surveyor was successful, but each one of them was $150 million. Then, NASA said, "Okay, we want you to do two missions for $150 million." Martin Marietta was stupid enough to sign up for that, and we were stupid enough to sign up for it, and they both failed. Both the orbiter and lander failed. The review board was going to crucify John—

ZIERLER: Casani?

SHIRLEY: No, no, no. I want to say McEnroe but that's not right. I'll think of it in a minute. Oh, no, Casani was always the golden boy!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: I have a great story about John and becoming a bulldogger.

ZIERLER: We'll come back to that!

SHIRLEY: [laughs] I don't know if you need it or not!

ZIERLER: Why were you so insistent that there should be a rover included with Pathfinder? What was your idea?

SHIRLEY: Because the scientists wanted to be able to get to rocks. That was their thing. The Viking landers were very frustrating because they sat there and they could scrabble at the dirt but they couldn't go anywhere and sample rocks. The scientists all wanted something that could move and go rove and sample rocks. The technology people wanted to demonstrate that yeah, we can build rovers. So, everybody wanted to do it except Tony, who saw it as this huge thing [laughs] that was in the way of his project. All he wanted to do was land. At any rate, we finally after all the stuff that's in the book agreed, and it landed and it worked!

ZIERLER: The scientists recognized that in order to do science, you needed a rover to go around the red planet?

SHIRLEY: That's correct.

ZIERLER: They went to you as the chief advocate, essentially, to ensure that Pathfinder included a rover?

SHIRLEY: Well, not all of them. Matt Golombek was the Pathfinder project scientist, and there was another guy named Hank Moore who was kind of the guru. They both did an analysis that showed that the probability of being able to get to a rock, if you didn't have a rover, was very small. Then the science community got behind the rover, because you had to have something that would move and go sample a rock, and go somewhere else and sample a rock. We negotiated a success criteria, and the criteria was rock, soil, and lander. That meant that you had to get a sample—with the alpha proton X-ray spectrometer, had to sample a rock. It also had to sample soil, and then it had to take a picture of the lander. We did all this analysis to show that it was feasible to do it in a week. We said, okay, if the rover lands for a week and we get these three things accomplished, it's a success. It turns out that it did much better than that, of course. It lasted 83 days, I think, and got lots of rocks and lots of soil and lots of pictures of the lander.

ZIERLER: Sojourner was not simply a technology demonstration? It was built to do science?

SHIRLEY: We had to do that to get a ride. Just to not demonstrate the technology was good for the technology people, but the scientists wanted science. So, we got the requirements—you've got to sample rocks, you've got to sample, and you've got to—and then for technology, you have to take a picture to show the lander really did land on Mars. That was the three things we had to do. It took me quite a while to negotiate all that, but we got it done. And it worked!

ZIERLER: What were the design options for the rover? Aside from the final winning plan, what was considered?

SHIRLEY: We had originally three studies—Martin Marietta, a company called FMC which built tanks mainly, and then the JPL Rocky, which was a small rover. Martin Marietta came up with a walker called Beamer, which was a triangle thing that would—two steps would go out, and then it would go—it walked. It was very awkward, but it walked. And it was huge. Then FMC came up with a big rover that was way too big, couldn't be flown. We had a contest—or the Planetary Society had a contest—called the Planetary Report or something; I forget what it was. All these different designs came to this contest, or this demonstration, and showed off these different designs. The one that did the best was Rocky. I wrote a paper that compared all these different options and came up with, "Surprise, it's Rocky!" We could get $25 million to build a Rocky equivalent, so that's how we came up with that.

ZIERLER: Was anybody talking during this period about finding signs of life on Mars?

SHIRLEY: Oh, continuously!

ZIERLER: Was Sojourner built in a way that it could at least begin to help answering that question?

SHIRLEY: No, what Sojourner was designed to do was to understand the chemistry. The alpha proton X-ray spectrometer was really the only science instrument, other than some technology-oriented ones. It would sample a rock, and if the rock had a certain combination of chemicals in it, that might be conducive to life. We got those samples, or we analyzed those samples on Mars, and of course nothing ever came of that, because life is not that easily found. In fact, even Perseverance hasn't found any life. But the end-all and be-all is to find life. That was always the holy grail, was to look for life. In the meantime, Mars Global Surveyor is looking at all these streambeds and signs of flowing water and things like that, and if there's flowing water there might have been life. That was the pièce de resistance of the program.

ZIERLER: Were you involved at all on decision-making on where to land on Mars?

SHIRLEY: Not really, no. That was completely the scientists. They had good pictures from Mars Global Surveyor, and they had good pictures from Viking. Viking did a lot of closeup photography. Then it had to be someplace that could be safe, and interesting. They looked at the Channeled Scablands in Washington, which a big flood had come through and left lots of rocks, and they said, okay, let's go find a place that looks like this, has lots of rocks. That's where Pathfinder landed. They wanted different kinds of rocks so they could analyze maybe different things. The scientists picked the landing sites. Now, there's some engineering required, because it also had to be safe enough to land, so there was a lot of back and forth, and back and forth, between the value of the science versus the probability of success of the landing. Matt Golombek was really the lead guy. He was the project scientist. And a lot of the engineers—there were lots of terrain studies done to pick the Pathfinder landing site.

ZIERLER: Launch day, December 4, 1996, what was that like for you? Were you nervous?

SHIRLEY: [laughs] Are you kidding!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: Of course I was nervous! Yeah. I've got a picture on my wall of the launch, which is spectacular. We had issues during the flight, but once we landed—now, the landing was the part that was scary, because none of the stuff had ever worked perfectly, especially the balloons. The last time the bags—they kept testing them and testing them and testing them, and they just finally worked, once. [laughs] So they had no great confidence that they would work. Then it turns out that the Channeled Scablands, for example, had some huge rocks, the size of houses, and if we had hit one of those, that would have been it. So, the nervous part was the landing.

ZIERLER: What did you do between launch and landing, from December to July? What was the main work to be done?

SHIRLEY: We were working on future Mars projects, because I was running the Mars Exploration Program. The next mission was going to be—we had two missions in the queue. We had 1998 and 2001. It was trying to get money to fly the 1998 mission and to fly the 2001 mission. They finally came up with—well, Dan Goldin decreed that you had to be able to do two missions for the price of one. Martin Marietta rather stupidly said, "Oh, we think we can do that. We can build two spacecraft for the price of one." Then a guy named Al Diaz from Goddard Space Flight Center—so we said, "Okay, we'll build two orbiters"—or two landers, and they can be identical, and that will be good. Al said, "No, you've got to build an orbiter and a lander." Martin Marietta said, "Oh, yeah, we can do that." They were wrong. It turned out that it was just too hard. In fact, I quit. I retired from JPL in the middle of it, because people were killing themselves and it was just too sad to watch.

ZIERLER: You retired earlier than you had anticipated?

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah. If they had given us adequate funding, I would probably still be running the Mars Exploration Program. No, that's not quite right. But no, there was just not enough money to pay for people. Martin Marietta was putting their brand-new babies on the project who didn't know anything because they couldn't afford the more expensive, mature people. Also it turned out there was a problem between—the Mars Global Surveyor had a broken wing, broken solar panel, and it was being flown at the same time that the 1998 orbiter was being flown. We didn't have enough navigators, so there was not enough work done to show that we were going to be in trouble. So, we were in trouble. The orbiter failed, and then the lander failed, and then they were having this review where they were going to crucify the project manager, who had done marvelous stuff just to get it to work at all. I had already left JPL, but I went in with a stack of paper that high, and I said, "Here's the first memo we sent them saying, ‘Don't put any more instruments on. Don't ask us to do this. We can't do this.'" Paper after paper after paper, pleading for them to lay off some of the requirements so we'd have a chance to do it. But they wouldn't. It turned out that on the review board was a guy named Pete Lyman who was the deputy director of JPL, and he said, "Oh yeah, the director of Caltech"—who I've forgotten his name; it was Tom something or other—

ZIERLER: The president?

SHIRLEY: Yeah, the president.

ZIERLER: Tom Everhart?

SHIRLEY: —Tom Everhart—would call Ed Stone in weekly and browbeat him about he had to do this successfully because Caltech needed the fee. The fee was driving Caltech. It has historically been an issue, as you probably know. That meant Ed came down on me and said, "You've got to make this work." No matter how much I said, "I need help, I need you to help me with NASA to lay off some of the requirements," he wouldn't do it. That's when I gave up. Pete, being on this review board, said, "Yeah. The program was caught between a rock and a hard place." Because of the Caltech fee. And because Dan Goldin was insisting on this unbelievable price for doing the mission, and he wouldn't listen to any reason. I went and begged and pleaded with his minions to lay off some of the stuff, and they were afraid to cross Dan. I tried to get an interview with Dan to really try to convince him of this, but I was never able to do that. So, I quit.

ZIERLER: Is this to say that by the time you quit, you were not assured of an ongoing Mars rover program, that Sojourner might have been the first and last?

SHIRLEY: Yes. Well, the plan—we had a plan. It was to do a mission every 26 months, and two, if possible. But the requirements that were laid on it made it impossible. So the 1998 missions both failed. Then even Dan Goldin admitted that he had oversubscribed, and bless his little heart, he did take the blame for it. In the meantime, there were people who had gotten divorced. One guy died of cancer. It was horrible.

ZIERLER: When did you start writing Managing Martians? After you retired, or during your time at JPL?

SHIRLEY: Oh, no, right after Pathfinder.

ZIERLER: Did a publisher approach you? Did they see a wonderful memoir opportunity here?

SHIRLEY: I actually had proposed a book before then, and after the success of Pathfinder, this agent contacted me and said, "You need to write a book." I said, "I did, and you turned it down." She said, "Send it back!" [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: She sold it to Broadway Books, which was kind of a little flyby startup. That's another set of issues. They insisted that I had to have a real writer, quote-unquote. Even though I had a degree in professional writing, that didn't cut any ice with them. They made me take this gal who had written a lot for Playboy magazine and things like that. She and I did not get along well. For a while, I disappeared from the book altogether because she got so fascinated with interviewing people like Brian Wilcox and Don Bickler—who are great people, but it was supposed to be an autobiography. That was an issue.

ZIERLER: Donna, tell me about returning to academia. Tell me about your dean work back in Oklahoma.

SHIRLEY: I was approached by the dean of Engineering. I don't know how he found out about me. I still had a lot of contact with people at OU in the Engineering School, and he was looking for somebody to help design the engineering program. They convinced him to hire me, so I said, what the heck? I'll go be an academic!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: I did that for two years. This was after I built the science fiction museum. I led the team that built it. But it turns out that I had a falling out with the dean. He was a Texan. [laughs] He quit, actually, a little after that. I wrote him a writeup about Texans are not Oklahomans. We don't have the same things. Texans brag. Oklahomans do not brag. We had this long conversation. Anyway, he quit. In the meantime, my daughter had finished her PhD and was in Seattle and had actually married her husband. They're still married all these years later. I said, I'll just go to Seattle! So I did.

ZIERLER: Just a few retrospective questions to wrap up this wonderful conversation. Looking back, the grand sweep of history, all of the important projects you were a part of at JPL—Mariner 10, the work that led to Cassini, the Space Station, Mars exploration—for historians hundreds of years from now, what do you think will be considered the most significant of the projects?

SHIRLEY: Oh, I think Voyager, although it's really hard to say, because each of these later missions is just magnificent. Cassino, Galileo. But Voyager, they're still going! How many years have they been going?

ZIERLER: It will be 50.

SHIRLEY: 1977.

ZIERLER: 1977.

SHIRLEY: Just amazing. Just spectacular. And Galileo, even though it had a broken radio, was incredibly successful. JPL people are geniuses. They're just—[emotional] I get tears in my eyes, The most important one to me was Pathfinder. And the rover.

ZIERLER: As a woman pioneer at JPL, working at a time when these things were unheard of for women, how did you do it? How did you stay strong when you may have felt discouraged or actively blocked from doing what you needed to do? How did you overcome?

SHIRLEY: I'm just an asshole! [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SHIRLEY: I have done a lot of things that people didn't think I could do. Taking mechanical drawing instead of home economics was probably my first example. I just always thought I could do it and didn't take any guff off of anybody.

ZIERLER: Do you think you opened up opportunities for future women in space science and engineering?

SHIRLEY: I definitely do. There were very few women at JPL, in management. In fact there was only one woman on the executive council and she was in charge of human resources. Now there's women all over the place! It just—

ZIERLER: Warms your heart.

SHIRLEY: —warms my heart.

ZIERLER: Donna, this has been a wonderful conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this. I want to thank you so much.

SHIRLEY: Oh, you're quite welcome!