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If you like Donna Shirley's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Sylvia Earle,
Gertrude Elion,
Daniel Goldin,
Susan Hockfield,
Meave Leakey,
Paul MacCready,
John Mather,
Story Musgrave
and Alan Shepard

Donna Shirley also appears in the video:
Mystery of the Cosmos: Life's Place in the Universe

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donna Shirley in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

Related Links:
Managing Creativity

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Donna Shirley
Donna Shirley
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Donna Shirley Interview

Mars Exploration Program

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Donna Shirley

Where did you grow up?

Donna Shirley: I was raised in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, population 2,500. The primary industry in the town was farming and there was a small refinery. My father was one of the two town doctors. He was a small town general practitioner who always had to get up at two in the morning and go deliver babies out in the country and things like that. When he suggested that I become a doctor, I remembered how he never got to sleep through the night and I decided to be an engineer.

I always wanted to fly airplanes, from the time I was very small. And when I was six, a friend of mine, a girlfriend, and I had this plan. She was going to be a nurse and I was going to be a bush pilot and we were going to fly into the outback and rescue people. And that was our objective. So, I built model airplanes and hung them from the ceiling and had a lot of books about airplanes. And then, when I was 10, we went to my uncle's graduation from medical school and on the program it said, aeronautical engineering. I asked my mother what that was and she said, "Oh, that's people who build airplanes." I said, "That's what I want to be." And so, that's when I decided that I was going to be an aeronautic engineer.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

When I was 12 or so I started reading science fiction. And, I read Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars, and Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and Heinlein's books about Mars, and just got completely fascinated with the idea of Mars and going into space and space travel. And so, when I got to college, there really wasn't a space program. I got to college in 1958 and that was the year that Explorer One was orbited, following Sputnik. And so, you really couldn't specialize in space, nobody knew how to do it. And so, I ended up still working on airplanes.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Were you encouraged to be a good student, and were you a good student in school?

Donna Shirley Interview Photo
Donna Shirley: I was a very good student. I was very definitely encouraged, in fact, that was expected. Fortunately, I was pretty bright, so it was relatively easy. I was valedictorian of my senior class, all 49 of us. It was actually a handicap, because when I got to college, at the University of Oklahoma, I was all of a sudden in with the big city kids, and I was not very well prepared, because our small town couldn't afford a chemistry lab, for instance.

When I was in college, most of the kids had had chemistry lab in high school and I never had. So I was really in trouble my first semester. I nearly flunked out, but I pulled it out. I'd never learned to study, because it was very easy. I had a pretty high IQ and high school was quite easy. College was a terrible shock, especially engineering school which is really tough.

Was there resistance to women studying engineering at that time?

Donna Shirley: There was a fellow named Mr. Brady, and he was my advisor when I first came to college. So, I strolled in very confidentially and said, "Okay, I'm here to sign up for my engineering courses." And he said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Well, I'm here to enroll in engineering." He said, "Girls can't be engineers." And so I said, "Well, yes I can." And so he said, "All right." I said, "What classes should I take?" And he said, "Well, here's the requirements and then you can take anything you want, and just bring it back and I'll sign it."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I signed up for 19 hours. The normal load was 15, but I wanted to take flying. And so, I signed up for this flying class, in addition to a fairly heavy course load. And plus, I'm good at taking multiple choice tests, which was the entrance exam for school. And so, they put me in advanced chemistry and calculus and all these advanced classes, and I was woefully unprepared for them. So, with the heavy course load, flying took a lot of time. So, I really didn't do very well for at least the first eight weeks. And in fact, I was flunking and my parents came up and, oh my gosh, you know, "Can we get you a tutor? What can we do?" So I went home over Christmas and just studied the whole time, and pulled out a B average that semester. But it was pretty hairy.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What was behind your passion for flying?

Donna Shirley: When I was a little kid I had model airplanes hanging from my ceiling and all that. My father gave me flying lessons for my 15th birthday. I went up to Paul's Valley, Oklahoma, which was the big town, seven miles north - it was 5,000 people, instead of 2,500. It had this little airfield, and I took flying lessons.

You have to be 16 to solo. So, I had to wait till I was 16 and then I flew by myself. We flew these little wooden fabric planes, in fact, some of them didn't have an automatic starter, so somebody had to go out and flip the propeller to get them started. They didn't have radios and they didn't have any instruments, so I was flying around just like one of those early barnstormers in these little planes.

Donna Shirley Interview Photo
In college they had a flying club. We flew Aronca Champs, so we were called the Air Knockers. We went on flying trips, we would fly to the University of Illinois for example, and there'd be contests to see who could land the most accurately and who could drop a sack out of the window and hit a target, who could navigate around a course the most accurately. They were really fun. We went to flying meets and really had a good time. I had this really intense period from 15 to 21 when flying was my whole passion, and I flew all the time. I got a flight instructor's rating and a multi-engine rating and a C plane rating, and I soloed in a glider and everything.

When I graduated from college, I went to work in St. Louis and when my father stopped paying for it, I couldn't afford to fly anymore. When I moved to Los Angeles I could have picked it up again, because I wasn't quite so poverty stricken, but in Oklahoma you could fly out in the wide open spaces, and that was really the free, out there kind of flying that I wanted to do. In big cities it's all controlled air space with a lot of radios and everything, and I really didn't enjoy it. In Los Angeles you have to drive a couple of hours to get to a place where it's interesting to fly. So when I went to California I took up sailing and skiing. I still have a lot of aerodynamic activities, but I'm not flying anymore.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 10:12 EDT
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