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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Out of This World

As Director of JPL's Mars Program, Donna Shirley Has Overseen Much of Our Speeded-Up Effort to Fly Where We Never Have Before

December 15, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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