Managing Martians by Donna Shirley with Danelle Morton

Believe it or not, this is the first book I have read about a woman in engineering so my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. Donna Shirley, once the manager of the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a renowned aerospace and mechanical engineer credited for leading the Mars exploration project that designed, manufactured and landed Sojourner Truth, a stow away on Pathfinder.

Sojouner Rover ©NASA/JPL
Sojourner Rover ©NASA/JPL

The book attempts to chronicle her life’s story, and tries to explain how a girl from a small town in Oklahoma made it big in the man dominated world of NASA through the JPL. Although I admit her upbringing didn’t resonate with me fully, I could relate with her need to explore the world beyond our planet and her love of space exploration which drove her desire to visit Mars, something I also aspire to do. As the book clearly points out, Donna quickly made peace with the fact that she may never get to set foot on the Red Planet, and that after a 35 year career in aerospace, watching a rover take pictures and collect and analyze samples of soil was going to be the closest she would ever get to achieving that goal. Thanks to her team’s efforts, we got to see Mars from a distance hopefully inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers to fulfill her dream of sending a human to Mars, safely.

The engineering and scientific jargon in the book is easy to follow for those technically inclined, but for the layperson it would have been better accompanied by photos and diagrams. When the tech talk got too deep into the details I found myself skipping over the technical aspects of the book because I already understood the terminology and science. However, these sections are really detailed and well explained to assist aspiring Martians to understand the importance of the mission requirements and how these were met to ensure the rover lasted as long as the journey and directives needed. I was hoping that the team dynamics and hurdles of the program would add a little drama and mystery into the experience of reading about the project’s hurdles and outcomes but this didn’t happen. The author made it sound like another day at the office, no big deal, shying away from an opportunity to make this into a truly inspirational management book. What Donna achieved with her team was downplayed to shine a spotlight on the autonomous robot and its development, or at least it felt like this to me.

Regardless of how unexciting this book was for me, Donna Shirley still comes across as a force to be reckoned with and a great example of how one can make dreams happen. As a person, her struggles with female archetypes and role expectations are something I can sympathize with, and I am thankful she overcame all the obstacles put in her way to deter her from becoming an engineer. The industry definitely needs more people like her in the front lines and inside management to ensure future generations have the opportunity to influence STEM in the same manner she has; by proving teamwork, resilience and kindness can go a long way. If someday I have the opportunity of lead a team, I will make sure I follow her advice and treat my fellow engineers with the same aplomb and affection she showed for her team. Brave is the person who sheds a tear after a great accomplishment; may we all jump at the opportunity to Manage [our own] Martians.

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