“She let her achievements speak for her.
She didn’t fight a public battle about
whether women could or should do the
work—she just did the work.”
Next time you brush off some task as easy because it’s “not rocket science,” think of Mary Sherman Morgan. For this amazing midcentury woman, it was all rocket science—and basically none of it was easy.
Born on a farmstead in rural North Dakota (so James T. Kirk!), Mary was the youngest of six children. She grew up in a family of bullying siblings and indifferent parents who kept her out of school to work on the farm until she was eight years old, when social services stepped in, threatening to arrest Mary’s father unless he allowed her to leave the house. The social worker provided Mary with riding lessons and a horse that would take Mary to and from the one-room schoolhouse.
Fortunately, the late start didn’t hinder Mary’s passion for education. After learning how to read and write while still managing to handle all her farm chores, she focused hard on her schooling and kicked the odds in the teeth by graduating as her high school’s valedictorian, despite being three years older than the rest of her graduating class because of enrolling so late. After running away from the farm to study chemistry at DeSales College in Toledo, she lodged in secret with her estranged aunt Ida. But her education would hit another bump: midway through her undergraduate years, the Second World War broke out. Among the upheaval caused by the conflict were new employment opportunities for women. As men headed off to fight, their now-vacant jobs had to be filled. Suddenly, a whole swath of the female workforce that might have otherwise been relegated to the secretarial sidelines was able to step up and apply for the openings—with Mary being among them.
Sometimes the jobs came knocking. While at college Mary had been approached by a “local employment recruiter” who needed “factory workers” trained in chemical engineering for a job in “Ohio.” As you may have assumed by my prolific use of “scare quotes,” the job the man presented wasn’t quite what it seemed. In fact, the recruiter refused to say exactly what the work was, what the factory made, or where exactly it was located. Fortunately, Mary wasn’t afraid of opportunity (even when “opportunity” meant “strange dudes offering sketchy jobs”), so she accepted the offer, even when she had to get “top secret” security clearance from the U.S. government in order to do so. Hoping to complete her degree later, but also needing money to eat and survive, Mary bailed on college after sophomore year and accepted the position.
As it turned out, this supposedly ordinary factory job (and “definitely not spy stuff at all”) was in the Plum Brook Ordnance Works munitions factory near Sandusky, Ohio, the country’s top supplier of gunpowder, producing 400,000 pounds of explosives per day. As an employee, Mary created chemical compounds like DNT (used for making TNT), pentolite (used for firing warheads and bazookas), nitroglycerine (a liquid explosive), and TNT (aka trinitrotoluene, aka the explosive you may recognize from many a Looney Tunes cartoon). An impressive worker, Mary was devastated when she discovered she was pregnant (for a Catholic working woman without a husband in the 1940s, not the best news), and she knew she was on her own when the father, her college sweetheart, dropped off the face of the Earth after she told him about their future baby. In 1944 she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by her cousin, Aunt Ida’s daughter Ruth (married but unable to have children). To afford postnatal care, Mary worked for three weeks at the hospital with other unwed mothers.
After the war, Mary rocketed ahead (get it?), trying to stave off the unemployment that faced so many women after the war. She boarded a bus for California and applied for a job as a theoretical performance specialist with North American Aviation (NAA), an aerospace manufacturer that designed and produced rocket engines, where she would calculate how new propellants were expected to perform. Thanks in large part to the sterling recommendations she brought from Plum Brook (a highly respected institution after the war), Mary was officially hired in 1947. The NAA brought her on as an analyst—a special word for an engineer without a college degree whom they could therefore pay less money—in the Aerophysics Lab at the NAA’s Canoga Park Office, later renamed “Rocketdyne.” Mary was one of 900 engineers in the company, but the only one without a college degree, and definitely the only woman.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mary was named technical lead on NAA’s next big contract: developing a new fuel for the Jupiter missile. (Contrary to its name, the Jupiter was not a weapon sent to kill aliens on the eponymous gas giant, but rather a standard-issue medium-range ballistic missile used for blowing up bridges and other military targets.) Mary’s job was to produce a fuel that would replace the current formulation (composed of 25% water and 75% ethyl alcohol), providing a combustion powerful enough to propel a satellite all the way into space (a feat the United States had not yet accomplished). In addition, the fuel had to be stable enough not to cause the rocket to explode on the launch pad (which was happening, like, all the time). And because the rocket machinery could not be altered, Mary had to improve the propulsion by changing only the chemical composition of the fuel—a task that most people thought impossible but that would see Mary facing a pink slip should she fail. Faced with this formidable challenge, Mary developed a fuel made up of 60 percent unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (H2NN[CH3]2) and 40 percent diethylenetriamine (HN[CH2CH2NH2]2). That would get mixed with liquid oxygen, or LOX. Mary, being wonderful, wanted to name her new fuel “bagel.” (Because bagel…and LOX. Delicious!)
Unfortunately for the world of rocket-science-related puns, the U.S. Army settled on the name hydyne. Regardless of what it was called, the fuel worked! Hydyne increased thrust by 12 percent and effectively launched the United States’ first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on January 1, 1958. (Of course, it was Explorer I’s designer Wehner von Braun who was lauded as the savior of the space program amid the formation of NASA that July.)
While working toward this blast of success (get it?!), Mary married fellow NAA employee and mathematical engineer Richard Morgan, and the couple would go on to have four children (one of whom is about to become crucially important to our story—stay tuned!). Mary retired in the late 1950s from an NAA office that then boasted at least a dozen women, and pretty much never spoke of her work again. She died in 2004, her passing marked by no major praise or plaudit, even though she was one of the world’s first female rocket scientists, without whom we may never have reached orbit.
Luckily for planet Earth, Mary’s son George Morgan was not about to let this injustice stand. After being approached at his mother’s funeral by a man who told him that Mary had “single-handedly saved America’s space program…and nobody knows it but a handful of old men,” George began digging into her past—and what he found was astonishing (as you know after reading all about it). When the Los Angeles Times refused to publish Mary’s obituary because it was unable to verify her accomplishments, George set out to make his mom a household name: he wrote a play about her called Rocket Girl, which was produced and performed at the California Institute of Technology in November 2008. Not content with already being the sweetest son ever, George published a complete biography of his mother in 2013—Rocket Girl: America’s First Female Rocket Scientist is three hundred pages celebrating the life of this fabulous but forgotten space-age heroine. He also swooped in and saved the day when an anonymous editor tried to give Mary’s supervisor credit for the invention of hydyne on Wikipedia (because, let’s get real, we know where people get their facts these days).
So now that we all know the truth, let’s never forget Mary Sherman Morgan, the raddest rocket scientist of them all.