In space, no one can hear a feminist scream
Sunday 03 August 1997
The only woman in the picture, it appeared, was the Mars rover herself, named after an escaped woman slave, and fondly referred to as a "she". Unlike Dr Who's K-9, or Star Wars 3CPO, Sojourner was plainly a girl, faithfully combing the surface of the Red Planet under orders from the men at mission control.
There are, in fact, two females on the Mars team. While Sojourner hogged the limelight from space this week, snapping postcard pictures of the Martian dawn, on Earth, it was 55-year-old Donna Shirley who was giving the interviews to CNN and Good Morning America.
Viewers might well have assumed that Shirley was just a spokeswoman for the Mars mission with a gift of the gab and plenty of pithy anecdotes. In fact, she runs it. "I am manager of the Mars Exploration Program," is how Donna Shirley introduces herself on a chatty Nasa World Wide Web site for schoolchildren alongside a jolly photo of herself in a yellow plastic map. "Currently, I manage three flight projects and the studies of future projects to Mars."
When she took science classes rather than home economics in her Bible- belt school in a tiny Oklahoma town, she says, she was constantly ribbed. When she enrolled in aeronautical engineering at college, en route to a master's degree, her shocked adviser told her: "Girls can't be engineers." Thirty years later space science is still a man's world. Twenty-three women astronauts have flown on the shuttle. Dr Jan Davis, 53, will make her third flight as a mission specialist this week. But few women apply to the astronaut corps, a Nasa spokeswoman said.
The early pioneers of the final frontier were all men. Today the gender gap is most pronounced in the boffins' back rooms, where women have struggled to make and maintain their inroads, as they have in other science fields.
In the 1990s, the consoles at Mission Control in Cape Canaveral are almost all "manned", just as they were for the launch and rescue of Apollo 13. "We're two for two," Shirley announced triumphantly when Pathfinder lifted off, shortly after Global Surveyor, another, slower, Martian mission that she oversees.
Mother to one daughter, divorced from another JPL scientist, Shirley is credited with creating and managing the low-budget effort that turned a lovable 22lb robot into the biggest space sensation since Neil Armstrong. No shrinking violet, she boasts that "everyone said it could not be done ... I convinced headquarters to spend the money on the project. I assembled the team."
Her resume noted she spends "five to 10 hours a week" on media interviews, even before the explosion of publicity on Pathfinder.
Shirley has been one of the boys at the JPL laboratory since 1966, when she arrived as an aerodynamicist on an early Mars lander mission that was later cancelled by Congress. She was inspired by Arthur C Clarke's book Sands of Mars, about a Martian colony, which she read at the age of 12. Over the past 30 years, she has assembled an encylopaedic knowledge of the planet.
"I think she advanced to a position of real leadership because she is unusually capable, and she was able to articulate her case so well," a former JPL director told the Los Angeles Times. Since she took the top job, she has hired six people, three women and one black man. She is not apologetic for appointments that seem politically, and sexually, correct. "It is true that women have to work harder than men to get as far, because most of the managers are men."
- 1 National Orgasm Day: Six reasons (plus one bogus one) why they're good for us
- 2 The 'world's most beautiful vagina' has been debunked by science
- 3 John Green schools morning show hosts after awkward interview with Cara Delevingne
- 4 Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston says why he left the BBC series after just one series
- 5 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper dies: Wrestling legend dies aged 61, according to reports
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Whoopi Goldberg tells Cara Delevingne to suck it up: 'She's not famous. I'M famous'
John Green schools morning show hosts after awkward interview with Cara Delevingne
Supermodel Gisele Bundchen mocked for wearing a burka to avoid being seen visiting plastic surgeon in Paris
'Rowdy' Roddy Piper dies: Wrestling legend dies aged 61, according to reports
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Calais Migrant Crisis: Deputy Mayor of Calais labels Cameron's use of 'swarm' as 'racist' and 'ignorant'
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...
£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...