Don Irons spent 40 years in a male-dominated field. His investment in future women engineers is good for the gender gap and the space program.
On a recent Friday morning, Don Irons, onetime NASA engineer, was called into emergency cat duty. A ringworm outbreak had contaminated the animal shelter where he volunteers.
“It was all hands on deck,” Irons says. Rooms had to be scrubbed, cat furniture sprayed with disinfectant, bedding and towels washed.
After more than four decades as a systems engineer at Kennedy Space Center, Irons is ever-so-gently slipping into retirement. “I’ve discovered late in life that I am a cat person,” he says.
Even so, Don Allen Irons is, and will always be, an engineer at heart — the launcher of astronauts into the stars.
Problem is, there’s a supernova-like gender gap in his chosen discipline, Irons says. Women engineers are too rare. He’s investing in the University of Florida to change that.
These young women have a greater sense of passion than many of us in my day. Because of them, I’m very hopeful for the future.
— Don Irons —
Irons, a 1969 UF graduate with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, established an endowment to recruit more women into his alma mater’s engineering college. Most of his $158,000 gift is through a charitable annuity that supports the university’s Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering student organization.
“We need more women in engineering — and, really, more engineers, period — to address all these things we’re facing today: climate change, environmental issues, a growing population,” he says. “Women are a great untapped resource in this area. If they don’t get that chance, we’re in trouble as a civilization.”
His gift through the university is also a tribute to the women engineers he worked with during his long career, Irons says. Back in the ’60s, when he was attending UF, “women were almost nonexistent in the engineering field,” he recalls. When he started at Kennedy Space Center, women engineers were still scarce. But the ones who were there were impressive.
“I was fortunate enough in a couple of instances to partner with women on projects, and it worked out great. Those were very enjoyable experiences,” he says.
That was during the glory years of the space shuttle program, the second heyday of America’s exploration into the heavens; the first being NASA’s race to the moon on the wings of Gemini and Apollo rockets. The shuttles — the Enterprise, Columbia, Discovery and their sister ships — were meant to be steppingstones into deeper space expeditions. And Irons and his fellow engineers were in the middle of it.
On April 12, 1981, when astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen soared into orbit on NASA’s maiden shuttle flight, “everybody felt like heroes,” Irons says. “That was my highlight.”
The lowlight came five years later. On Jan. 9, 1986. When, 73 seconds after launch, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies above Cape Canaveral.
“That was the most traumatic event of my life,” Irons insists.
“Afterwards, everyone wondered if it was something they did. Or didn’t do [that caused the explosion]. It was painful. All the engineers were distraught.”
And now, all these years later, Irons — creator of a NASA countdown-to-launch procedure that makes missions into space less risky — is looking to women engineers to make mankind’s next giant leaps in innovation, problem-solving and discoveries.
“These young women have a greater sense of passion than many of us in my day. Because of them, I’m very hopeful for the future,” Irons says. “I’m happy to contribute in whatever small way I can.”
In the meantime, the used-to-be space pioneer is grounding himself in cats and artifacts. Volunteering with Brevard County’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Indian River Anthropological Society fill much of his days.
But at night … oh, at night … the stars do shine.
Don Iron’s 3 Reasons to Make a Planned Gift to UF
Every gift matters: “You don’t have to be a billionaire. People like me can make a significant difference without having eight-, nine-figure incomes. You can still do great things.”
The giver receives, too: “In my case, my (charitable) annuity is providing me with extra income in retirement, so I’m comfortable. And I’m supporting the university at the same time.”
The glow: “It’s made me feel really good to reconnect with UF and young people there.”