In space, no one can hear a feminist scream

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The Independent Online
THE MAGAZINE spreads on the Stars of Mars, the live television pictures from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said it all: a couple of dozen grinning scientists pumping their fists in the air, gung- ho buddies in beards and glasses, every last one of them men.

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."