Rocketing Through The Glass Ceiling


By Donna Shirley

With Danelle Morton

Broadway Books

276 pp., $35

Whenever there's a successful space mission, smiling astronauts and exultant scientists take their bows. But the managing engineers who make these things happen get much less press.

Meet Donna Shirley. She brought us the Sojourner rover that delighted us a year ago as it wandered over the surface of Mars like a child bemused by shiny pebbles on a beach.

Shirley runs the Mars exploration program at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. JPL manages this and other space programs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Shirley's book tells, in sometimes excruciating detail, how she fought her way to this top aerospace management job at one of the world's leading space research centers. Along the way, she took a significant part in many of the planetary missions that have opened the solar system to on-site exploration.

This reviewer should confess his bias. I have been a fan of Shirley's throughout her 35-year JPL career. Whether as an official commentator on early moon and planetary missions or as an overworked program manager, she always found time to help a science reporter. Her comprehensive overviews and lucid explanations helped us convey the flavor and public relevance of space exploration to our audiences.

Her autobiography continues that tradition. Although written with the help of a People magazine writer, Shirley's personal style shines through.

Through all those years of occasional professional contact, Shirley gave little hint of the personal struggles she was having to hold her own in a male-dominated corporate culture. JPL prided itself self-consciously on being "an equal opportunity employer." But the embarrassing truth is that, as in many other organizations, white males have been more equal than women and racial or cultural minorities.

Shirley turns a harsh spotlight on that embarrassment. She came from a small town and family background where young women's ambitious ran in traditional channels. Her youthful ambition to someday "go to Mars" was a disturbing aberration. So were her accomplishments as the lone female pilot in a local barnstorming group.

She had to fight sexist discouragement to get her engineering degrees and in her early employment. More battles lay ahead when she eventually arrived at JPL. But here there was countervailing encouragement from some male colleagues and career opportunities that enabled her to win her way.

Shirley's saga shows the virtue of perseverance in an era when old discriminations are yielding. One can forgive the occasional touch of bitterness in her account. But was it necessary to pillory one particular colleague whose antagonism has given him more mental grief than it gave Shirley?

The struggle has given Shirley a resilience and resourcefulness that has benefited her organization and her country as well as herself. These qualities helped her find creative ways to save important missions - including last year's Mars rover - that NASA funding politics would otherwise have killed. Anyone who has had any contact with the space saga will find, on one level, a great deal of dj vu here.

Shirley's challenges also have forced her to develop new management techniques that save money for the space program and make JPL a better place to work. These accomplishments are recognized by her senior management appointment.

Fortunately, glass ceilings, invisibility, and other impediments to career advancement for women are part of a fading culture. Shirley's example is part of a transition to a truly more equitable work environment. Learn to live with it guys. There will be a lot more Donna Shirleys in the aerospace engineering future.

* Robert C. Cowen writes on science for the Monitor.

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