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To paraphrase the old soap opera: Can a rich girl from a small Oklahoma town find success and happiness married to her job as first woman manager of a NASA space program? The answer is a resounding yes as recounted in this spirited autobiography by Donna Shirley with People correspondent Morton. Shirley led the design team that built the microwave-size, six-legged robot that explored Mars in the Pathfinder project launched July 4, 1997. —Sojourner— traversed 100 meters of Martian surface, returning 550 images and 15 chemical analyses of soil and rocks, far exceeding expectations. The story opens with the successful launch, not without a few hairy moments, and then flashes back to the young Shirley, the tomboy offspring of the premier families of Wynnewood, Okla. (population 2,000-plus). Father was the town physician, mother the clergyman’s athletic-minded daughter, allowed to train dogs and lead a Girl Scout troop but otherwise required to conduct herself as society matron. Inevitably, this led to maternal-filial friction as some of ma’s frustration worked itself out in perfectionist demands that Donna excel at sports and social attractiveness. All this entered the equation that shaped Donna’s ambitions--to become an aeronautical engineer. She took flying lessons at 16 and got her degree in aerospace/mechanical engineering. Soon after, she landed the job at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where she has spent the last 30 years slowly but surely moving up, eventually being named Mars program manager. There are wonderful narrative bits in the course of building the rover: budgets slashed, impossible deadlines, shouting matches with rival managers out to sink rover, and plenty of how-we-did-it-with-chewing-gum-and-sticky-tape solutions. But there’s also a special appeal for women in this saga: Shirley is of a prefeminist generation. She had a lifelong dream of getting to Mars and discovered that sheer hard work, respect for talent, and well-honed management skills got her there. Never say die! (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) ($65,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: July 4th, 1998
ISBN: 0-7679-0240-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Broadway
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998


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