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

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

5.0 3
by George D. Morgan, Ashley Stroupe

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     This is the extraordinary true story of America's first female rocket scientist. Told by her son, it describes Mary Sherman Morgan's crucial contribution to launching America's first satellite and the author's labyrinthine journey to uncover his mother's lost



     This is the extraordinary true story of America's first female rocket scientist. Told by her son, it describes Mary Sherman Morgan's crucial contribution to launching America's first satellite and the author's labyrinthine journey to uncover his mother's lost legacy--one buried deep under a lifetime of secrets political, technological, and personal. 
     In 1938, a young German rocket enthusiast named Wernher von Braun had dreams of building a rocket that could fly him to the moon. In Ray, North Dakota, a young farm girl named Mary Sherman was attending high school. In an age when girls rarely dreamed of a career in science, Mary wanted to be a chemist. A decade later the dreams of these two disparate individuals would coalesce in ways neither could have imagined. 
     World War II and the Cold War space race with the Russians changed the fates of both von Braun and Mary Sherman Morgan. When von Braun and other top engineers could not find a solution to the repeated failures that plagued the nascent US rocket program, North American Aviation, where Sherman Morgan then worked, was given the challenge. Recognizing her talent for chemistry, company management turned the assignment over to young Mary.
     In the end, America succeeded in launching rockets into space, but only because of the joint efforts of the brilliant farm girl from North Dakota and the famous German scientist. While von Braun went on to become a high-profile figure in NASA's manned space flight, Mary Sherman Morgan and her contributions fell into obscurity--until now. 

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Morgan (playwright in residence, Cal Tech) is the son of rocket scientist Mary Sherman Morgan (1921–2004). Here he recounts the role she played in enabling the rocket launch that carried America's first satellite into space in 1958. She is credited with inventing Hydyne, the liquid fuel used to lift Explorer 1 into orbit. The strength of this biography rests in how the author contextualizes his mother's story within the better-known one of Wernher von Braun during NASA's early days. This is an accessible and enjoyable read, covering Mary Sherman Morgan's young life in North Dakota through her career working as a chemist for North American Aviation. Morgan initially told his mother's story in a play of the same title; his playwriting skills are evident here. Unfortunately, given his mother's preference for privacy, as well as the secrecy surrounding early rocket projects, plus a dearth of archival sources, the author turns to dramatizing some of his narrative with fictionalized dialog. VERDICT The scarcity of documentation raises questions about historical accuracy here, circumstances that detract from the work but remind us of the need to record and credit adequately the contributions of women scientists, like Morgan, to obtain the fullest account in our history of science collections. Recommended.—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ. Lib., Corvallis
Publishers Weekly
Playwright George Morgan (Second to Die) knew that his mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, 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.” In addition to being a very private person, Mary was further constrained by the top-secret status of her projects. She kept such a low profile that when famed German scientist Wernher von Braun wrote to her, he addressed the letter to a “Dear Unknown Lady.” In the early 1950s, Morgan—with only a high school diploma—was the sole female analyst among 900 rocket scientists at North American Aviation. If it weren’t for her invention of the propellant hydyne, America’s first satellite would’ve never made it off the ground. Based on a play of the same name that Morgan put on in 2008, this portrait of a mother shrouded in mystery and largely forgotten by the field she pioneered is a compelling read, though folks looking for a more objective biography might be put off by Morgan’s dramatic flourishes and the lack of critical distance between author and subject. Agent: Deborah Ritchken, the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (July)
From the Publisher

"A dramatic, suspenseful tale."

“Illuminates the exploits of an unsung heroine of the space age.”
—Preston Lerner, author and journalist
“A beautiful story well told. Mary Sherman Morgan, a woman who toiled in obscurity and liked it that way, rises from a dirt-poor and abusive childhood to break the gender barrier in rocket engineering. She goes on to solve the last remaining problem keeping America from the stars. Mary’s contribution... would have forever vanished were it not for this book. An inspiration for women—and men—everywhere.”
—Rod L. Pyle, Author of Destination Mars
“This portrait of a mother shrouded in mystery and largely forgotten by the field she pioneered is a compelling read.”
Publishers Weekly
“An intriguing biography.... The personal story and family detective work are truly gripping, and Mary, in all her contradictions, emerges as a fascinating subject.”
“An accessible and enjoyable read.... [It reminds] us of the need to adequately record and credit the contributions of women scientists, like Morgan, to obtain the fullest account in our history-of-science collections. Recommended.”
Library Journal
“A sweeping yet intensely personal book.... [It] takes us from the windswept prairies of North Dakota, where Mary Sherman was born, to the equally windswept steppes of Kazakhstan from which Sergei Korolev would launch Sputnik..., putting the United States on a crash course to catch up. [The] race between Korolev and his American  rival, ex-Nazi rocketeer Wernher von Braun is deftly interwoven with the daily lives of the unknown engineers [like Mary] who made it possible.”
—Douglas L. Smith, legacy content producer, California Institute of Technology

An interesting book that sheds light on a little-known person who played a key role in the early days of the space age, one that should be more prominent given how few women were involved in aerospace at the time.”
The Space Review

NSTA Recommends
Fascinating ...Compelling...The book is highly readable and could be used in a variety of ways.... A wonderful resource for any science teacher looking for a new opportunity to spur their students' interest in the history of science and the challenges that women have faced in doing the work of science. --July 16, 2013
George D. Morgan is a clear-eyed, compassionate biographer of his mother and brings the science and military-industrial complex of the space-race era to life. --July 18, 2013
Astro Guyz
Read Rocket Girl for a fascinating insight into an untold tale of a heroine of the early Space Age. This story would make a great film adaption, along the lines of October Sky... great stories deserve to be told! --July 12, 2013

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 George D. Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-740-2




This is a story about a mother who never talked to her children. This is a story about a wife who rarely talked to her husband, though they were married for fifty-three years. This is a story of a woman who desperately wanted happiness but could never summon the strength to reach for it. This is a story of a woman who had a family that loved her, but who struggled to love them in return. This is a story about a woman whom people admired but could never get close to. This is a story of a woman who harbored many secrets and lived in daily fear that those secrets would one day be revealed. This is the story of a woman who took those secrets to her grave. This is a story about America's first female rocket scientist.

This is a story about my mother.

Mary Sherman was born on November 4, 1921, on a small farm in a remote corner of North Dakota. There is no record of who was present that day, as the Shermans were never great record keepers. On August 4, 2004—eighty-two years later—Mary was admitted to the emergency room of West Hills Hospital in West Hills, California, with chest pains. Her husband (my father), G. Richard Morgan, was by her side. An hour later, Mary was dead. There is no record of who else except my father was present, as the Morgans have never been great record keepers. They wheeled her body out of the room, and a nurse collected the possessions she left behind: a handful of home-sewn clothing, fifty feet of clear plastic oxygen tubing, and a plastic bag overflowing with exotic medications.

That afternoon, my father began calling his children, which included my brother, Stephen (a long-haul trucker), my sister Monica (a draftsman living in Oregon), and my sister Karen (a government health worker in nearby Orange County). He called me last and asked that I write Mary's obituary for the Los Angeles Times. I told him I would be honored.

I did not expect any challenges writing her obit. Even though my mother always refused to discuss her 1950s top secret Cold War work with any of her four children, we had learned quite a few things from eavesdropping on little snippets of conversation between our parents and their friends. We knew, for instance, that our mother had been a rocket scientist, that her work included designing new and exotic rocket propellants, and that she had made several historical achievements that helped usher in the Space Age. Taking this obituary assignment most seriously, I interviewed my father, found out a number of things I never knew about my mother, wrote the obit, and submitted it to the Times.

I assumed that getting her obituary published would be a slam dunk, given that my mother was the inventor of hydyne—the rocket propellant that boosted America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. Her invention had helped rescue America's tarnished reputation in the wake of Russia's launch of Sputnik 1 and 2. It was a significant milestone in the history of America's space program, especially since she had been the only woman out of nine hundred engineers, and she didn't even have a college degree.

To my surprise, however, the Times refused to print the obit. The reason, they said, was that my mother's life "could not be independently verified." They said that they had checked the claims in my obit article and could not verify any of them.

They could not verify any of them!

That was when I realized my mother's numerous accomplishments in the fields of rocketry and aerospace were already turning to dust and were in danger of being lost to history forever. Apparently no one at North American Aviation had been very good at keeping records either, because two years later a former NAA engineer, Robert S. Kraemer, would write a book about the company. He would do it because no one else could. And the reason no one else could write it? According to Kraemer, "The professional historians said there was not enough preserved documentation for them to write a proper history."

After seven years of working on this project, I can tell you this: Robert Kraemer and those "professional historians" were absolutely correct. Historical record keeping in the non-aircraft portions of aerospace has been abysmal.

My mother had been a devout Catholic most of her life, so the funeral service was held at St. John Eudes Catholic Church in Chatsworth, California—just a few miles from the home Mary lived in for almost forty years. Despite the fact I wasn't a Catholic, the family agreed that I should be the one to deliver the eulogy. It was pretty normal stuff as eulogies go—lots of talk about Jesus, the resurrection, heaven. Blah, blah. After the services, all the attendees—about fifty people—sat down for a sunny, outdoor lunch in the church courtyard.

Lining up at the buffet table, I dished up a plate of food and went looking for an available seat. I noticed that a number of my mother's former coworkers were gravitating to a table set off from the rest of the group.

My mother had chosen to share very little information about her life as an aerospace engineer. She claimed that her security clearance forbade her from doing so, but we always suspected there was a lot more to it. Long after she retired, and most of her work had been declassified, she continued to enforce those rules of secrecy on herself. She had seen too many of her friends punished over the years for the smallest of infractions. Most of her top secret work had been performed in the 1950s—the McCarthy era—and people were afraid. But long after Senator McCarthy was dead, his ghost continued to haunt my mother's soul. So when I noticed the NAA engineering group congregating at a single table and talking over the "good old days," I knew where I had to set my plate. I was eager to hear a few war stories from these men (and they were all men). I took a seat at their table, took a bite out of my sandwich, and quietly listened.

Not more than two minutes went by, however, before I felt a stern tap-tapping on my right hand. I turned to see the face of a very elderly gentleman sitting across the table, his face wrinkled and folded, like those canines that win the "ugliest dog" contests. He stopped tapping my hand, using his bony index finger to point straight at my nose. He spoke.

"You need to listen to me, young man."

"Yes, sir."

"My name is Walter. I knew your mother. I worked with her. I'm going to tell you something about her you probably don't know. Listen carefully."

"I'm listening." That was the truth.

He looked left and right, as if checking for FBI surveillance, then stared though my body like it was made of glass.

"In 1957, your mother single-handedly saved America's space program," he said, "and nobody knows about it but a handful of old men."

"Hm. Okay."

"You need to tell her story," he said. "You need to let people know the truth. Don't let her die nameless."

That's when I remembered: the monthly bridge games.

As a young boy, some of my earliest memories were the bridge tournaments hosted in our Reseda, California, home by my parents. At that time, they were both working for North American Aviation—the forerunner of Rocketdyne. It was the place where they had met. Marrying my mother was no small competitive feat for my father, since she was, as I've said, the only woman out of nine hundred engineers. Once a month, about a dozen of those engineers and their spouses would gather at our home to socialize around the card tables. I would walk amongst those tables, small and anonymous, listening to phrases such as, "Two spades," "Three hearts," and "We had a fire on the test stand today." Walter, I now remembered, was one of those bridge-playing engineers.

As he began eating his lunch, I told Walter how I had been unable to convince the Los Angeles Times to publish her obituary. He nodded understandingly.

"To get a large city paper to publish an obit the deceased has to be famous—something your mother was not."

Despite being a pioneer in the all-male world of aerospace engineering, and despite a long résumé of important and historical accomplishments, Mary had worked hard at not being famous.

"I do not want to see my name in print. You will not write articles about me—not while I am alive."

Those were my mother's words to me just after her eightieth birthday when I had the temerity to suggest it would be a good idea if I wrote a magazine article about her historic contributions to American rocketry. When I pressed the issue further she became belligerent, even angry. This was a woman who cared nothing for notoriety, a true anachronism in today's celebrity-obsessed culture. Mary Sherman Morgan was a woman who shunned publicity and valued her privacy more than life itself. She hated celebrity and detested those who sought after it. To put it another way, she was the exact opposite of that avid publicity hound Wernher von Braun.

Humility, however, has a downside; its practitioners can be lost to history, no matter how great their accomplishments. My final phone conversation with the editor of the Los Angeles Times obituary department grew heated as she continued to refuse to publish my mother's obit. When the argument reached a red-faced crescendo, and she continued to be obstinate, I threatened to take some kind of action.

She replied, "What are you going to do, Mr. Morgan—sue us?"

"Oh, no. I'm going to do something much worse than sue you," I said. "I'm going to write a play."

I hung up the phone and immediately opened my laptop. Through the magic of theater, I decided, I would accomplish what history, the army, NASA, the media, and my own mother had refused to do: I would write a play and use it to bring Mary Sherman Morgan's accomplishments into the light of day.

This self-imposed assignment quickly turned into a journey—a journey that would take me to many places as I played detective, tracking down the small number of former coworkers who were still alive. They were all retired, of course—some for decades. When I told them about what I was doing, they were unanimous in their desire to help.

You need to tell her story. You need to let people know the truth. Don't let her die nameless.

In November 2008, the play Rocket Girl opened at Caltech's 400-seat Ramo Auditorium, playing to large, enthusiastic audiences. At the end of each performance, mothers and their daughters would come up to me and tell me how inspiring the play had been for them. By the time the curtain closed on the night of our last performance, hundreds of websites across the Internet spectrum were reporting, talking, and blogging about Mary Sherman Morgan. Mary became the subject of a history fair exhibit by a high-school student in Maryland (the young girl won the state championship with it), a docent at Cape Canaveral began incorporating my mother's story into the official tour guide spiel, and theaters around the country began inquiring about producing the play. And even though the Los Angeles Times still refused to publish her obituary, Mary's name became known to millions almost overnight.

That could have been the end of the story, and in fact I did expect the responsibility to my mother's legacy to end with the closing of the play. I had done what Walter had instructed me to do—I had told my mother's story; I had told people the truth. I had made sure she did not die nameless.

This is a story that should have ended right there. However, the production of the play, and the subsequent media attention it garnered, triggered a series of events I could never have foreseen. With the storm of attention that followed the play, we would all soon discover why our mother had spent her entire adult life refusing to talk about herself or her past. Unbeknownst to me or my siblings, Mary Sherman Morgan had lived her life hiding a number of secrets. The media attention that followed the play became the earthquake that rocked the foundation of those secrets and forced them out into the open.

This is a story that should have ended in November 2008. Instead, it was just the beginning.

Excerpted from ROCKET GIRL by GEORGE D. MORGAN. Copyright © 2013 by George D. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

George D. Morgan (Santa Paula, CA) is the Playwright in Residence at the California Institute of Technology. He has written more than a dozen stage plays and musicals, including Second to Die, Nevada Belle, and Thunder in the Valley. He is the son of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's first female rocket scientist.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anica More than 1 year ago
As a retired chemist who was first in her field numerous times, I can appreciate this bio. (I had it rough, but she had it rougher!) The book is very well researched. The author, her son, flips back & forth from Mom's life to the Russian space program at the same era. I first read this as a library book, but bought my own copy from Barnes & Noble so I could spend more time on the Chemistry some day... I've recommended this book to the chemists I still know, and also to anyone who wonders how the FIRST women made their way "in."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend. Should be reading material for all. Very informative, hard to put down