NASA People

Center Snapshot: Shawn McDonald
Shaun McDonald. Image above: Shawn McDonald spent much of her childhood around airplanes in California. Now she works in an organization that supports flight research. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Jim Hodges

Near Thanksgiving, Shawn McDonald drove to New York to adopt a fuzzy white puppy, a Bichon Frise that was soon called Louis, aka Louie, so named after the Spirit of St. Louis.

McDonald directs Information and Data Services and Contract Performance for ROME Group, and Louis is part of a dynasty of family dogs with aviation-themed names: Ryan, Piper and Douglas.

The memory of those names is a link to her childhood, spent surrounded by planes and pilots in Oakdale, Calif. McDonald soloed in a sailplane at 14 and in a single engine Cessna at 16.

Various incarnations of the Peanuts “World War I Flying Ace,” "Snoopy," are scattered throughout her office. They also are reminders of long summer days working with her father in an aircraft overhaul shop and flying over the Central California Valley.

She no longer flies. Instead, McDonald has found a new affinity for hockey. “I go to Admirals’ games and am looking forward to seeing my first NHL game in a couple of weeks,” she said.

She also enjoys golf.

Plainly, McDonald possesses tremendous energy. Or is there something else?

"I am always looking for new challenges and adventure" she says, simply.

Perhaps that's why her job description doubled a year ago, when she added contract compliance to the information and data work. She supervises about 60 people under the ROME contract. It's what brought her to the Peninsula.

McDonald's first job out of Santa Clara University was at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

"I earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and my senior design partner and I met a guy at Ames and he offered us room to work," she said. "We never left. After graduation, my design partner joined the NASA camp and I joined Sverdrup. In fact, we are both still working for the same companies all these years later."

McDonald's desire to find better ways to do things earned her promotions with Jacobs and eventually a job at the home office in Tennessee. After a brief sabbatical in the Tennessee valley, she got a call from her old boss at Jacobs on a quiet Saturday morning, asking if she could help implement a new contract in Virginia.

McDonald told him she could be there on Monday, but he said, "Maybe you aren’t hearing me, I need help now."

She was on the next flight out. That was more than five years ago.

Her routine begins with a daily 7:45 a.m. meeting with center operations personnel and involves traveling back and forth from her office just off Langley at the intersection of Magruder Boulevard and Butler Farm Road.

Three days a week of meetings and putting out various fires, then two days of catching up with the job precede weekends spent catching up with her life (or more work, depending on what needs to be done).

Besides energy, she brings passion to her job. Also a sense of humor, which is reciprocated by the people with whom she works. On her wall is a necklace of rubber toes, along with a box labeled “Toefany’s.”

“I said one day in a meeting that if something wasn't done, I would be stepping on some toes,” she remembered.

And then there is a baseball cap with wings attached, from a meeting in which she expressed a need for a hat from which great ideas would spring.

And then there is Louis, who demands increasing time off the job and has become a traveling companion.

In his first 30 days with McDonald, Louis has joined her on multiple trips to Tennessee and made his first coast-to-coast trip, which included a tour of Carmel, Calif., over the holidays. Ahead for Louis joining her annual spring trip to the Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, and they are looking for other trips to rack up his frequent puppy-flier miles.

“Yes,” McDonald said, “it’s a real program.”