June 15, 2004
Making Science Fact, Now Chronicling Science Fiction
EATTLE, June 10 - Donna L. Shirley used to run NASA's Mars exploration program. Now she is doing something even more far out.
Ms. Shirley, who retired from NASA in 1998, is director of the new Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame here, set to open on June 18. Instead of pointing space probes at the next rock out from the Sun, she now oversees exhibits exploring the universe of "What if?," from genetic engineering to aliens to parallel worlds.
"I took the job because I really believe that science fiction can be used to interest people in literacy, science and technology," Ms. Shirley said, "and because I thought it would be fun."
The $20 million creation of Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the museum is nestled inside another Allen museum, the Experience Music Project, in a twisted, multihued building designed by Frank Gehry. The space originally housed a hyperactive music ride called Artist's Journey, but that turned out to be too expensive to operate and was removed a year and a half ago.
The four galleries, spread over 13,000 square feet, explore the history of science fiction, interstellar journeys, futuristic worlds and aliens. On one wall is an armory of imaginary weapons, from phasers to ray guns to the crossbow used by Jane Fonda in "Barbarella." James Cameron lent a full-size, 19-foot-long model of the Alien queen from his 1986 movie, "Aliens."
The museum has special effects, too, including a mock-up of a space station whose portholes offer glimpses of craft like the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars," E.T.'s spaceship and the U.S.S. Enterprise from "Star Trek" zooming outside. And Mr. Allen has supplied some of his own memorabilia: first editions of novels like H. G. Wells's "Time Machine" and Captain Kirk's chair from the original "Star Trek" series.
Ms. Shirley hopes the museum will not only excite science fiction nostalgia, but also excite people about science.
"People think, science fiction, that's kind of kooky," she said, "but actually science fiction is how a lot of people like me got into the engineering business or the space business or science." (Mr. Allen, a science-fiction buff from an early age, is playing his own role in turning science fiction to science fact by financing what would be the first private spacecraft. The rocket, built by Burt Rutan, is scheduled to make its first flight into space, 62 miles up, next week.)
The museum has applied for a National Science Foundation grant for using science fiction to teach science.
Ms. Shirley, 62, grew up in a small Oklahoma town with just one science-fiction book in the public library, Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles." As a 12-year-old, she said, "I checked the book out over and over again."
"The Sands of Mars," by Arthur C. Clarke, had a major influence on her career. "It was the first time I realized that people could go and live on another planet and work in a team on something really important," she said. "I wanted to be involved in high technology. I wanted to be involved in exploration. I'd already planned to be an engineer from the time I was 10 years old, but I was going to build airplanes."
While science fiction of the 1950's had moved beyond the rescuing-damsels-in-distress-kidnapped-by-alien-invaders plots of earlier pulp magazines, most stories were still written by men and read by men.
That did not deter Ms. Shirley. "There were no female role models for me, anyway," she said. "The idea was that people could do these things." When an adviser at the University of Oklahoma told her that girls do not become engineers, she persisted. "I was stubborn," she said. "I just knew what I wanted to do."
When she joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966, she was the only woman with an engineering degree, hired to work on a planned mission to Mars that was canceled a few years later after budget cuts.
She worked on NASA projects on solar energy, the Mariner 10 mission to Venus and Mercury, an early version of a Saturn mission that evolved into the Cassini spacecraft [Page 1 of this section], the space station as proposed by President Ronald Reagan and proposals for human missions to Mars.
She led the team that built the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft that deposited the rover Sojourner on Mars in 1997, and was manager of the Mars exploration program from 1994 to 1998. She helped hire more women into NASA; now 10 to 20 percent of the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are women, she said.
"I remember one meeting," Ms. Shirley said. "Everything was going so smoothly and all of a sudden we realized it was all women, and it never happened to any of us before. We'd never been in a meeting where there were no men. Times are a-changin'."
But the Mars Pathfinder's success and the new mantra "better, faster, cheaper" led NASA to build and send two more spacecraft, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, for just the price of the Pathfinder.
"I could see disaster coming, and the expectations were too large," Ms. Shirley said, but she could not get anyone to pay attention. "It was too depressing coming into work and watching everybody kill themselves to try to do the impossible with no appreciation from NASA headquarters that it was impossible."
In 1998, a frustrated Ms. Shirley retired.
The next year, both spacecraft were lost. A confusion between English and metric units caused the Climate Orbiter to descend too far in the Martian atmosphere, where it was torn apart; a design flaw in the Polar Lander is believed to have shut off the landing rockets prematurely, causing it to crash.
NASA has remedied such problems with the two rovers now on Mars, she said. But she worries that
After NASA, Ms. Shirley spent four years as an assistant dean at the University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering, then retired again. She moved to Seattle, where her daughter lives.
Then the science fiction museum called. "So here I am," Ms. Shirley said.