Author: George D. Morgan

Title: "Rocket Girl – The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist"

Publisher: Prometheus Books 2013; 283 pages

"In Rocket Girl," George D. Morgan makes the case that his mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, was America’s first female rocket scientist. He persuasively establishes Mary Sherman Morgan as the inventor of hydyne, the liquid rocket fuel which powered the launch of America’s first satellite on Jan. 31, 1958.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, on Oct. 4, 1957. It was a shock to America that the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space. The space race was on.

At the end of World War II, the Americans grabbed Werner von Braun and many other German rockets scientists and engineers who had developed Adolf Hitler’s deadly V-2 rocket. 

“The U.S. Government had begun work designing large rockets that might one day be capable of manned flight, (but) … they had assigned von Braun to rocket projects intended as non-orbital weapons. The situation was like telling the quarterback of a championship football team he was not allowed into the stadium," Morgan wrote.

With Sputnik circling the earth, the government backed the Navy’s Vanguard missile to launch America’s first satellite. On Dec. 6, 1957, the Vanguard missile lifted off the launch pad and blew up. I have vivid memories of watching the television news and seeing the Vanguard missile blow up. The government finally turned to von Braun and the Army’s Redstone/Jupiter C missile and, in less than 60 days, it put America’s Explorer 1 in orbit. Hydyne was the fuel that made it possible.

Mary Sherman was born on Nov. 4, 1921, and grew up on a small farm near Ray, N.D. She graduated from high school in Ray in 1940 at age 19 as valedictorian in a class of about 60. She was older than the other graduates because her father kept her out of school for three years so she could work on the farm. It took a social worker, the sheriff and a court order to force him to send her to school.

Morgan says Mary was never told by anyone in her family she was loved. She was regularly beaten with switches on her legs by her brothers and was told she was ugly. Without telling anyone in her family, she left under cover of darkness to catch a bus to college. She wound up at DeSales College run by the Sisters of Norte Dame near Toledo, Ohio. She had a $500 scholarship from the Ray PTA and an incentive scholarship from the Sisters. She was good at math and chemistry, but, with the war going on, she dropped out after two years to work at Plum Brook, a company making explosives.

At Plum Brook, she met a boy. He said he loved her, probably the first time she had ever heard those words addressed to her. She became pregnant, he walked away, she gave the baby up for adoption and resumed her work. After the war, Mary went to California, and, with only two years of college but with great references, she was hired at North American Aviation as a technician. As the only woman in a large building with 900 engineers, she established a reputation as the best chemist working on rocket fuels. She married Richard Morgan, an engineer working at NAA.

Morgan explains the search for the right rocket fuel that would burn long enough and strong enough to put a satellite in orbit. His mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, was the technician who solved that problem with the invention of hydyne and put America into space.

The problem for me with this book is that Morgan could not really get enough information about his mother’s life, and thus he felt he had to write “creative nonfiction.” Thus, most of the dialogue, though plausible, was made up by him to move his story along. There is no evidence Morgan ever came to North Dakota to attempt to research his mother’s life or interview members of her family or anyone before she started work at NAA. And there is not much about her life after she left her job, except Morgan’s main memory of her is that she was usually at home drinking coffee, smoking and playing bridge.

Mary died at age 82 on Aug. 4, 2004, in West Hills, Calif. It would be great if we could have learned more in this book about her North Dakota roots.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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