A Review of ROCKET GIRL: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist

Today I have the honour to host on my blog a fellow author, podcaster, space and Mars addict, Doug Turnbull, with one of his great book reviews. The book is “Rocket Girl”, which tells the story of the first America’s rock scientist Mary Sherman Morgan. Doug will soon host the author of this book, George D. Morgan, in his podcast, Mars Pirate Radio, so stay tuned!

“The Krauts sharpened their pencils and somehow figured out that the Redstone has what it takes to get 93.1 percent of the way into orbit. Do you know what 93.1 percent gets you in the satellite business, Colonel?”

“No sir.”

“It gets you bupkiss!” The general’s face was getting red. It was not a good sign. “If we launched the Redstone today it would keel over at a very high altitude and splash down somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. A pile of worthless sheet metal. That’s what 93.1 percent gets you. Understand?”

“Yes sir.”

Occurring in the mid-1950’s, this exchange initiated a sequence of events leading to the development of Hydyne, a fuel mixture that allowed the Redstone (aka Jupiter-C) to launch America’s first satellite. Hydyne was invented by the subject of this book, Mary Sherman Morgan, as related by her son, playwright, George D. Morgan, in his book, Rocket Girl.

Born and raised on a hardscrabble farm in North Dakota, Mary Sherman Morgan, did not start school until she was eight years old and despite a lack of encouragement by her family, she succeeded, graduating as Valedictorian of her class. In the early 1940’s, Mary left home at age nineteen to attend a small college in northwestern Ohio where she excelled in Mathematics and Chemistry. However, for economic reasons she was forced to drop out after two years and as this was during World War Two, she took a job as a chemist in a defense plant manufacturing ordnance. After the war, the demand for ordnance disappeared as did her job. Taking a long shot, she applied for a job as an analyst in the engineering department at North American Aviation in southern California. Despite her lack of an engineering degree, the glowing recommendations from her previous employer got her the job: the only woman in a 900 man engineering department.
Mary excelled at her job, applying her keen mind to the complex problems presented by designing rockets and developing the fuels for them. Eventually she emerged as the “go to person” in the department for insoluble problems. This reputation for solving tough problems led directly to her receiving the assignment to develop a more powerful fuel for the Redstone. The book details the problem and the process Mary used to solve it.

Character sketches of German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and of Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev help provide historical context for this biography. At several points in the narrative about Mary, the writer cuts away to tell us what von Braun or Korolev were doing in their respective careers at that time. These multiple story lines eventually converge on the same goal: putting the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit. This is a useful device in that it starkly contrasts these three historical characters. First there is the world famous Wernher von Braun who promoted space flight (and himself) at every opportunity. Next there is Korolev whose existence and identity were kept a state secret until his death in 1966, after which the many achievements of the Soviet “Chief Designer” eventually became known. Finally there is Mary Sherman Morgan whose anonymity, while normal in the top secret culture of the aerospace industry, was also self enforced. She never told her family that she invented Hydyne even long after the fuel ceased to be a secret. To compound her own silence, the author was unable to get anyone at Rocketdyne (formerly North American Aviation) to communicate regarding the development of Hydyne. Instead, George D. Morgan researched this biography with numerous interviews of his mother’s now retired fellow engineers, family and acquaintances.

Published in 2013 by Prometheus Books, the story of Mary Sherman Morgan was first told in stage play format at Cal Tech, where Mr. Morgan is the Playwright in Residence. In this narrative, like the playwright that he is, Morgan fleshes out the skeleton of history with attributions of thoughts and emotions to the characters in the biography that he feels are likely and consistent with their actions. For this reason, some critics have described Rocket Girl as a fictionalized biography. In my view, this aspect of the biography in no way detracts from the story and merely makes it more readable than a simple, dry accounting of the verifiable events. This is an excellent book about a very interesting period in the history of space flight and it is well worth your time. Mr. Morgan will be a guest on my weekly podcast, Mars Pirate Radio, in early October at which time we will discuss this fine book at length.

Doug Turnbull
Hard science fiction scribe

DOUG TURNBULL is the author of several books and stories including Ribbon To The Sky, Footprints In Red and The Man Who Conquered Mars. In 2013, his short story Tenderfoot won The Mars Society-Bulgaria’s Editor’s Choice award for short science fiction. A new novel, Zachary Dixon: Officer Apprentice and a novella Dangerous Passage are scheduled for publication in late 2014. All of his stories are now available both in e-book format and most in paperback.
Turnbull currently resides in Klamath Falls, Oregon, USA, and presents weekly podcasts on the subjects of science, science fiction and the future. He is also a regular contributor of non-fiction articles about space flight to Space.com. 

Visit Doug’s website: www.dougturnbull.com
And listen to Mars Pirate Radio: http://dougturnbull.podbean.com/