September 2013

Rebecca Silber


Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist by George D Morgan

Mary Sherman Morgan, who died in 2004, was destined for obscurity -- and that would have been fine with her. For decades, Morgan's self-doubt, or perhaps modesty, camouflaged the accomplishments she achieved as America's first female rocket scientist. Her most notable achievement was the invention of the liquid fuel, Hydyne in the 1950s. Hydyne was the propellant that launched the first American satellite into space in 1958. Her son George D. Morgan's recently published book, Rocket Girl, has brought Mary Sherman Morgan out of obscurity. It tells the story of his mother's life, and highlights her unique career path.

Mary Sherman Morgan grew up on a farm in Ray, North Dakota. As a child, she was neglected by her parents and taunted by her brothers. Instead of sending young Morgan to school, her parents kept her home to work on the farm until Social Services stepped in when she was eight years old. For this reason, Morgan started out in school already behind the rest of the children in her grade. After such a difficult childhood, as soon as she graduated from high school (as valedictorian), Morgan was ready to leave for good. She snuck out in the middle of the night and took a bus out east to live with her aunt and attend college.

During World War II, the United States experienced a shortage of chemists. Morgan dropped out of college to work at the world's largest manufacturer of trinitrotoluene (TNT), Plum Brook Ordnance Works munitions factory in Ohio. After the war, she applied for a job along with thousands of young war veterans and was hired to work for North American Aviation in California. Morgan was the only woman engineer at North American Aviation and worked hard, earning herself much respect among her peers, despite also being one of a small number without a college diploma. When Morgan became pregnant with her second child, she decided to stay home with her children and retired from her career, as was typical of a woman in the 1950s. From that point on in her life, Morgan made no mention of past scientific achievements. She didn't even offer advice when her children expressed their own interest in rockets.

Rocket Girl is unique in that its categorization isn't completely clear, but George D. Morgan refers to it as creative nonfiction. There are biographical moments interspersed with descriptions of the process that Morgan the narrator went through to collect information about his mother's life. He concludes that his mother worked hard, and with great intelligence, to keep her secrets -- even finding a photograph of her was exceedingly rare. This, of course, made it all the more difficult to gather material in which to write her story, and therefore, it isn't completely factual. George D. Morgan worked tirelessly to find out as many truths as he could -- he interviewed his mother's former coworkers, family, and even set up a blog and website in the hopes that anyone who knew anything about Mary Sherman Morgan would contact him. He made some startling discoveries along the way and also wrote a play about his mother's life that was performed at Cal Tech in 2008.

Along with the story of Mary Sherman Morgan's life, her son has added chapters that parallel simultaneous, and related, scientific events at the time. George D. Morgan tells the story of German scientists during the war, and how many of them, including Wernher von Braun, a science celebrity, was brought over to work in America after the war. The events leading up to Russia's launch of Sputnik are also chronicled. These historical events give a sound context for the story of the America's entry into the space frontier.

George D. Morgan admits that Rocket Girl is "imperfect" because it relates to a "chapter of history that has not been well recorded." He encountered many obstacles, and hopes that this book will open doors for more historical gaps to be filled in the future. Gaps aside, George D. Morgan has written an entertaining and informative book. Mary Sherman Morgan is a unique character; her story about a woman's rise from despair to become the first female rocket scientist is extraordinary. Without Morgan, America's entrance into the space race would have not happened when it did and history would have been changed. Her son felt that it was his duty to tell his mother's story and he "can't help but wonder how many other Mary Sherman Morgans have lived throughout human history -- people with accomplishments significant enough to be historic, but whose exploits historians failed to properly record." It would have been a shame for women, for all humans, if this story had been lost.

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist by George D. Morgan
Prometheus Books
ISBN: 978-1616147396
250 pages