Some days, you'd think Donna Shirley was the only woman on Earth who ever managed a hugely successful landing on Mars.

In the year since a pair of robots bounded onto a rocky flood plain on the Red Planet and captivated a global Independence Day audience on Earth, the head of NASA's Mars exploration program has been declared a Woman of the Year by both Glamour and Ms. magazines. Annie Leibovitz photographed her for Vanity Fair and Hillary Rodham Clinton praised her as having a vision that "should inspire everyone interested in science." Three weeks ago, she even had a comet named after her.

An imposingly tall woman with the wholesome, easy manner of a Scout leader, Shirley is in Washington today as part of a nationwide tour to promote her autobiography, "Managing Martians" (from Broadway Books, written with Danelle Morton). In it, she gives a feisty account of her climb from a socially awkward Oklahoma childhood to the heights of the testosterone- dominated world of space engineers. She's making the rounds of local news and talk shows and is to speak at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center tonight at 6.

Although Shirley, 56, is flattered by the accolades, she says they are really an indication of how starved the culture is for female role models.

"People are looking for heroes," she said in a recent interview from her home near Los Angeles, where part of her phone number spells "MARS" and she drives a Saturn. "The fact that {going to Mars is} a team effort doesn't come through."

She recalls her horror at a recent banquet where she received an award along with Sybil Brand, who pioneered safer prison conditions for women. The very elderly Brand walked slowly to the podium to say thanks, announcing: "This is my 3,000th award." Shirley thought, "Good Lord! Could that happen to me? There should be millions of women in my position."

Shirley never traveled down the Mississippi on a raft, but her prickly odyssey from small-town Oklahoma to a "virtual" landing on Mars is a kind of Huckleberry Finn dream for little girls bent on breaking molds -- and ceilings. When she was small, she would wedge herself high among the branches of a sycamore tree, read books and, as she listened to the leaves rustling in the gusts that swept out of the Great Plains, dream of adventure.

Like those of many women, her memories are laced with society's warning: "You can't do that." She confirms a story told by insiders at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: After she demanded to know why she had to do things a male colleague's way, he ended his argument by saying, "Because I have the penis."

She didn't put that in the book, she noted with a rueful laugh. "I didn't want this to be a male-bashing book." But she catalogues her periodic encounters with nay-saying men, including "yelling matches" with a sometime nemesis on the Mars team.

Her mother's rigid perfectionism, she believes, helped forge her determined character, her ability to "spit in the eye" of opposition and thrive as the only woman in a roomful of hostile male engineers.

Born in 1941, she grew up in Wynnewood, Okla., "confined by the expectations and entitlements" of belonging to a prominent family in a small town, she writes. Her father was the town's physician, working long hours that distanced him from his family. And Shirley's mother, the daughter of a well-known minister, was herself frustrated by the limits society placed on her.

Focusing all her drive and ambition on her two daughters, Shirley's mother pressured them to excel in sports. When they performed poorly -- Shirley almost drowned during a mile swim, and she lost control of her horse during a big show -- their mother beat them with a fly swatter. "The best thing I can say about the hard physical labor and rough athletic circumstances my mother forced me into is that she made me fearless," Shirley writes.

An "unrepentant tomboy" with buck teeth, by her own description, Shirley dodged home economics to take mechanical drawing. At age 10, she was mesmerized by a Collier's magazine article about space pioneer Wernher von Braun. She had a crush on Jimmy, the teenager in Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel "The Sands of Mars." The best birthday present she ever received, she says, was flying lessons her dad bought her when she turned 15. "The only role models I had were men," she writes. "This wasn't a sexual identity confusion; this was love of action and heroics."

When she showed up at the University of Oklahoma to enroll in aeronautical engineering, she says, her adviser snorted, "Girls can't be engineers." Society then assumed the only reason a woman might major in engineering was to increase her chances of meeting a man. And, in fact, as Shirley blossomed into womanhood, her mother maneuvered her into entering the Miss Wynnewood beauty pageant. To her shock, she won.

But she kept returning to her maverick ambition. Finally, equipped with a pilot's license, degrees in writing and aerospace mechanical engineering, and a brief track record as a technical writer at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, she paid her first visit to the campuslike hillside sprawl of the JPL in Pasadena, Calif. -- soon to become NASA's mecca of interplanetary exploration. The year was 1966, an aerospace boom time. JPL's was the lowest-paying job offer of several she got, she recalls, but she jumped at it.

Along the way, she married a fellow JPL engineer and took six weeks off at age 35 to have a baby. She credits JPL's child education center -- a nursery school -- for easing her days as a career-focused mom. "It's a huge advantage. . . . I've spent a lot of time trying to preach and lobby for better child care." She and her husband were divorced six years ago after 20 years of marriage. "Job demands didn't help," Shirley says. "But certainly I doubt if I'd been a nice stay at home,' things would have been any different."

At JPL, she says, she decided that she would work her way to the top. She concluded that, despite the lack of women in the ranks, "the culture was that if you do a good job, you'll do fine." She learned to deal with scientists. "They're very prickly and highly individualistic, trained to be argumentative. . . . You have to be able to hang in there, not burst into tears."

Participating in some two dozen different interplanetary projects, she worked her strengths: people skills, communicating and managing. "I'm a good systems engineer," she says. "I'm not a great hardware or software engineer. But I can recognize people who are."

Some of her ideas on "daring to be creative, knowing what you want and having the courage to go after it," she says, came from training in the California-bred human potential movement and psychotherapy with a women's group during the years when she and her husband were struggling with marital troubles.

Her skills were tested as she moved closer to her rendezvous with that little red dot in the sky. In the post-Cold War early 1990s, NASA was undergoing wrenching changes. In the interplanetary game, Washington had decreed that the old approach of dispatching complicated, billion-dollar "Battlestar Galacticas" once a decade was to be supplanted by what the space agency termed "smaller, faster, better, cheaper" missions departing several times a year.

In 1992 Shirley was assigned to lead the development of a planetary rover that would typify the new style. While NASA had long planned to launch robots the size of trucks to explore Mars, the belt-tightening dictated that one-eighth-scale test models would now become the actual flight articles. The six-wheeled Mars rover later known to the world as Sojourner (after the anti-slavery and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth), no bigger than a microwave oven, became Shirley's other "baby," prompting her daughter to make jokes about sibling rivalry.

This was Shirley's first chance to deliver real flight hardware. "Until you do that," she says, "you're not a member of the club." Armed with helpful advice from supportive male colleagues, she carefully selected people she thought would be able to work in a radically different way. She wanted team players and maximum flexibility, in place of NASA's traditional compartmentalization and fighting among rival fiefdoms within the project. Instead of the usual hierarchical rankings, she writes, "I drew a circle." As the team worked inside the circle, she says, "I'd try to keep the evil forces of bureaucracy and micromanagement from impacting the team."

It was not a foregone conclusion that Shirley's rover would make the flight to Mars aboard the Pathfinder spacecraft that landed last Fourth of July. The issue was at the heart of a stormy relationship between Shirley and a colleague, the barrel-chested, blunt-talking and charismatic Tony Spear. His assignment was to develop the spacecraft for the relatively meager sum of $171 million. (The Viking mission 20 years earlier had spent the equivalent of $3 billion, adjusted for inflation.)

Spear said in a phone interview that he hadn't read Shirley's book and suspected that her account differs from his. But in the end, he said, he accepted her design, even though it represented "the higher risk" compared with an alternative rover under consideration.

And as for Shirley, he added, "What she did was pull together one hell of a team."

In 1994, Shirley was promoted to head NASA's whole rapidly evolving and difficult program of planned Mars exploration, including Spear's Pathfinder, with other spacecraft lining up to depart in pairs every two years for a decade.

Shirley finally got to try out all her pent-up management ideas. She trimmed overhead to the point that for two years, she says, she worked steady 80-hour weeks. The "Martians" -- Shirley's term for the creative team players she has worked with in the program -- have confronted a cliffhanging series of technical obstacles and funding crises, for which they so far have managed to find shoestring-and-baling-wire solutions.

Shirley says she wanted to tell the story "warts and all," because of concerns about "how little people understand about how science and engineering is done," she says. In the end, she is fond of noting, the entire Pathfinder mission cost less than the movie "Titanic."

Up to the moment of Pathfinder's landing, people were warning the mission would never work. On that sweltering Fourth of July morning a year ago, wearing her favorite suit -- Mars red -- Shirley found herself standing outdoors in JPL's central plaza facing CNN's cameras, relying only on a tiny, sun-dazzled TV monitor on a nearby trash can to keep track of Pathfinder's fate. She ached to be inside Mission Control with her comrades as they waited anxiously for the signal that the craft had survived its perilous plunge through the Martian atmosphere -- but she was one of NASA's designated explainers.

Finally, the signal came. She did a victory dance and almost hugged the nearest person -- the TV reporter, who told her, "It's unusual to see an engineer of your caliber crying." Shirley admits she cried that day. But she points out, "Everybody on the team, Brian and Tony, all these big tough macho guys, they were all crying. It was a peak life experience." CAPTION: "People are looking for heroes," says Donna Shirley, shown last summer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a Pathfinder model and a Sojourner souvenir.