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Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley 2003 Inductee

Donna Shirley was born in 1941 in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and grew up in Wynnewood. At fifteen she took her first flying lessons and soon earned her pilot’s license. She studied engineering at the University of Oklahoma despite the fact she was told women could not be engineers. In 1962 she earned a degree in professional writing and returned to earn her aerospace/mechanical engineering degree in 1965 from OU. She later completed a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California. She worked in St. Louis, Missouri as a spec writer for McDonnell Aircraft before moving to Pasadena, California, to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she stayed for thirty-two years.

When she began working for NASA in 1966 Shirley was the only female with an engineering degree out of 2,000 engineers. She worked on numerous space missions throughout her career. She managed NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, becoming the first woman to manage a NASA program, and led the team that flew the Sojourner rover on the Pathfinder to Mars in 1997. She retired from NASA in 1998. She then served as Assistant Dean of Aerospace Mechanical Engineering at the University of Oklahoma for three years where she taught a course she designed called Managing Creativity. She moved to Seattle where she became director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (now EMP Museum), and eventually made her way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she enjoys speaking and mentoring young women interested in engineering.

Shirley is the author of Managing Martians: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman’s Lifelong Quest to Get the Mars—and of the team behind the space robot that has captured the imagination of the world, and Managing Creativity: A Practical Guide to Inventing, Developing, and Producing Innovative Products.

In 2003, Shirley was inducted in the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. Among many other recognitions, she was inducted in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame, and the Academy of Achievement, a museum of living history. She also received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal and the National Space Society’s Wernher Von Braun Memorial Award, and Asteroid 5624 Shirley was named in her honor. 

Shirley enjoys spending time with her family, including her partner George, her daughter and grandson. 

(Bio current as of 2011)