"Rocket Girl': Forgotten woman engineer

She rescued Wernher von Braun (who couldn't remember her name)

Mary Morgan wasn't sexy, but where would we be without her?
Mary Morgan wasn't sexy, but where would we be without her?

Readers of Rocket Girl should be warned: George Morgan's story of his mother's contribution to America's space program is an example of "creative non-fiction"— an unfortunate term currently favored by the academic creative writing establishment. In this case, the designation means the author has invented dialogue and even whole characters and scenes.

You can't be sure any given detail is literally true. You have to check the afterword for a catalogue of the fictional characters and scenes.

Despite these lapses from normal journalistic standards, it must also be said that, without Morgan's efforts, his mother's story would have disappeared when her colleagues died— partly because of her distaste for attention, and partly because her employer, the North American Aviation Corporation, was more interested in producing results than keeping records.

George Morgan had to piece the story together from interviews with the men who worked with Mary during the period right after Sputnik ignited a colossal panic attack in the U.S. To the author, his mother had seemed a distant figure who apparently suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He knew she had worked for North American Aviation but he didn't grasp the importance of her work until he joined a group of retired engineers at the reception following her funeral in 2004.

In 1957, one of the engineers told him, "your mother single-handedly saved America's space program, and nobody knows about it but a handful of old men."

Chores took priority

Mary Sherman Morgan grew up on a grim farm in North Dakota, in a family that expected her to spend her time doing farm chores and housework. When they let her start school, three years late, they made it clear that her farm work took priority over her studies.

Nevertheless, Mary demonstrated a flair for chemistry and math and managed to break away from home and attend a small Catholic college. Short of money, she left college without a degree and went to work in a World War II explosives factory.

After the war, she joined North American Aviation as an "analyst"— the designation awarded to degreeless employees who performed the work of an engineer at half the salary. She overcame the usual objections to hiring a woman in an all-male field and became North American's leading specialist in the art of "calculating and predicting" the performance of fuels that could power military rockets.

Set up for failure

According to the standard accounts, when America's first attempt to launch a satellite ended in an explosion on the launch pad, the government turned to Wernher von Braun's Army rocket team.

Von Braun had developed a four-stage satellite launcher based on the Army's Redstone missile, but the Eisenhower administration insisted that the civilian Vanguard project had to produce America's response to Sputnik. When Vanguard failed, the story goes, von Braun got the go-ahead, and his team put Explorer 1 in orbit, thereby boosting America's national morale.

Morgan tells a slightly different story. Shortly after Sputnik, one of von Braun's colleagues produced calculations proving that von Braun's system couldn't make it into orbit with the oxygen and alcohol it burned in its engines. Mary Morgan's supervisor was told to come up with a new "cocktail" at once— one that could do he job without requiring significant changes in the rocket— and ordered to assign his "very best man" to the job.

Mary Morgan's colleagues felt it was an impossible task and feared their "very best man" had been set up for failure.

"'Dear Unknown Lady'

Engineers create rocket fuels by a complex intellectual process that requires math skills as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the available chemicals and their characteristics. Mary tackled the job with the skill and knowledge of someone who had been designing fuels for seven years.

On January 31, 1958, less than four months after Sputnik, von Braun's rocket lifted off, burning liquid oxygen and hydyne, a new fuel that Mary had designed from a standard ingredient and a new entry called diethylenetriamine.

After Explorer went into orbit, von Braun and his colleagues posed for a famous picture that shows them holding a model of their rocket over their heads, like an athletic trophy. Morgan tells us that von Braun returned to his hotel room after the celebration and penned a thank-you note. He didn't know the name of the analyst who had saved his reputation, so he began the letter, "Dear Unknown Lady."

An engineer's lot

Morgan wrote this book, quite properly, because he wanted to restore his mother's place in the history of astronautics. But for me, his efforts raise a more general question:

Suppose Mary Sherman Morgan had been duly credited in the records? Would she be any better known today?

The fact that she was a woman in a man's occupation might have earned her extra publicity. But I suspect her name would still be unknown to most people— not because she was a woman, but because she was an engineer.

The "'real' Jodie Foster

Over the last 200 years, thousands of engineers have produced the kind of critical development chronicled in Rocket Girl. Although we live in a society that's totally dependent on the work of engineers, they're generally treated as backstage underlings. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, politicians and performers make the headlines, and the people who actually create our world labor in obscurity.

Everyone knows who Jodie Foster is, but how many people can identify Jill Tarter, the astronomer who provided the real-life model for the role that Foster played in Contact?

Act in a movie and you'll be besieged by reporters begging for interviews and photo ops. Produce something that millions of people use and you'll be honored, at best, with brief mentions in technological histories that most people never see.

The first Russian and American satellites were instigated by a Cold War military competition, but they were the forerunners of the satellite networks that form the foundation of today's global communication and navigation systems. The next time your GPS gives you an instruction, you might spare a thought for Mary Sherman Morgan and all the nameless creative individuals whose work is embedded in that useful little gadget.

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