I suspect even author George D. Morgan recounting the life of his mother, Mary Sherman Morgan here in this book, ‘Rocket Girl’ never remotely dreamed her significance when young. Mary felt constrained not to talk about her work to even her own children and it only came out at her funeral to them that she was not only a rocket scientist but the inventor of hydyne, the rocket fuel mixture that got America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into space. Encouraged by her former work colleagues, including her husband, Richard Morgan, who was also a rocket scientist, and with their help, playwright George Morgan not only wrote a play about his mother but also the book, ‘Rocket Girl’, I’m reviewing here. Mary Morgan might not have been famous nor wanted to be but her contribution to the space programme made it possible, yet she retired in 1955 to raise a family and others taking the credit for her work.
Mary Genevieve Sherman was born into a large farming family and it wasn’t until the law stepped in at the age of eight that she began her education. Even so, she never graduated from university despite being excellent at chemistry and maths and was recruited into quality control at an American explosives factory during World War 2. After that, she had the recommendations that got her into rocket fuel engineering as an analyst at North America Aviation and was the only woman amongst 400 engineers. She was also the best number cruncher in the days before those electronic computer things, which arrived just after she retired. When Wernher von Braun’s team had problems with getting the right mix to create a rocket fuel that could get a satellite into space, the military approached North America Aviation and despite their protests for a male leader, the now married Mary Sherman Morgan got the job simply because all the other chemical engineers ran their numbers past her. There was no objections from them because they thought anyone leading this team was likely to fail and be fired.
In a typical geeky way, Mary tackled the problem in a different way than she was asked and worked on the fuel than the igniters to reach the magic number of 305, the specific impulse rate needed to reach escape velocity. Oddly, she got it up to 310 with a chemical cocktail for stability that she originally called ‘bagel’ before it got its name of ‘hydyne’. Russia might have got a Sputnik in space first, but because of her efforts, Explorer soon followed.
It should be pointed out that to just give a biography on just Mary would be a small volume. Sensibly, her son spends some time looking over von Braun and his team and also that of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev in the USSR who was also working on their own rocket plans. By giving the complete picture, this book gives an interesting look into the early developing space race.
As a playwright, it’s inevitable that George Morgan uses his dialogue skill to bring things to life but this doesn’t deter from the book because it just makes it easier to read. Behind the lines of the book, Mary Morgan appears to have been a compulsive analyst and a formidable bridge player. Had she not retired to raise her family, it does make me wonder what else she would have added to the space race. Fuel for thought.
(pub: Prometheus Books. 325 page illustrated enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US). $ 19.00 (CAN), £11.83 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-739-6)
check out websites: www.prometheusbooks.com