Rocket Girl: Son Restores Mothers Lost Legacy As America’s First Female Rocket Scientist

January 7, 2014 by
Mary Sherman Morgan
HistoryScienceSTEMTech Tuesday

Since Mary Sherman Morgan’s passing in 2004, her son George Morgan has been working tirelessly to do something that was never done by those who should have… to write his mother and her extraordinary accomplishments into the historical record.

A true unsung heroine of the Space Age, Mary’s story is as jaw dropping as the way in which George only recently came to learn exactly what his mom, a brilliant, but modest woman, did to single-handedly save America’s space program almost 60 years ago.

In 1957, the race was on to see which world super power would be the first to place a satellite into orbit. As American rockets kept blowing up on the launch pad, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The U.S. Army’s Redstone rocket could reach orbit, but only if a more powerful fuel could be developed.

Mary Sherman Morgan “single-handedly saved America’s space program… and nobody knows it but a handful of old men.” When top engineers could not find a solution to the repeated failures, a search was conducted to find the country’s very best rocket propellant scientist. To everyone’s surprise, that person turned out to be a young woman from California… a Woman You Should Know with only a high school diploma. Her name was Mary Sherman Morgan.

Mary grew up dirt-poor on a farm in North Dakota at a time when girls rarely dreamed of a career in science. Nonetheless, she wanted to be a chemist and did just that by pursuing a chemistry degree, which she never finished, at Minot State University.

After spending years designing explosives for the military during World War II in Cleveland (Mary was initially recruited when the war broke out due to the shortage of chemists and other scientists on the home front, and put her chemistry degree on hold), she went to work for North American Aviation in California.

That’s where she was working in the early 1950’s when the rocket propellant scientist search got underway. Her company was selected to solve the great fuel challenge. Recognizing her talent for chemistry, North American Aviation management turned the assignment over to young Mary, the only female engineer among 900 rocket scientists.

In that unique position, what she accomplished was historic… inventing the rocket fuel – hydyne – that successfully boosted America’s first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit in 1958. It’s safe to say that without Mary, the U.S. could have been knocked right out of the Space Race. Despite this, her monumental achievement was buried deep under a lifetime of secrets (personal and professional) and she fell into obscurity until her death.

Rocket Girl coverPublishers Weekly writes that George Morgan knew his mother had done important work as a rocket scientist for the U.S. during the Cold War, “but it wasn’t until her funeral in 2004 that he began to understand the extent of her contributions. At the service, a man who had worked with Mary told George that she had ‘single-handedly saved America’s space program… and nobody knows it but a handful of old men.’” WOW! WOW! WOW!

In an exclusive chat with WYSK, George told us, “When she passed away, the Los Angeles Times refused to publish her obituary on the grounds that they could not verify any of the information in the article.” With that, George, an accomplished playwright, set out on a labyrinthine journey to uncover his mother’s truth and bring long-overdue attention to her and her work.

After years of complex research and investigation, George wrote Rocket Girl – a stage play that premiered at Caltech in 2008, and a book published in July 2013 under the same name. These works are his odes to his mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s first female rocket scientist.

We asked George why it was important for him to tell his mother’s untold story. He explained, “The ‘why’ comes down to wanting to restore a lost legacy. Thankfully, that campaign appears to be succeeding.”

Rocket Girl is most definitely going on the Women You Should Know Good Reads page.