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The eccentric engineer: the secrets of the ‘Rocket Girl’

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This is the story of how Mary Sherman Morgan, who, having minimal options as an unqualified young woman with an illegitimate child, saved the US Space Programme.

Mary Sherman Morgan is perhaps an unlikely hero of the space race and certainly an under­appreciated one.

One of six children, she was brought up on a rural North Dakota farm, and only went to school aged eight when the local education board insisted. At school she shone and developed a passion for chemistry, later enrolling at Minot State University, shortly before the Second World War broke out. However, her longed-for degree would not materialise. One of the effects of the war in the US was a shortage of scientists and particularly chemical engineers. Men were sent to the front, so local recruiters looked around for other qualified people not subject to service –the young, old and, of course, women.

Morgan was approached by a recruiter who heard of her brilliance at chemistry. He made her a peculiar offer – a job at an Ohio factory that she must decide on without knowing what the factory made or what her job would be. The only clue was that she would have to pass Top Secret security clearance. This, and the chance to earn some money, proved enough for the ever inquisitive and almost destitute Morgan, who agreed to put her degree on hold and take the job.

Morgan arrived in Ohio to find she was to work on explosives manufacture at the Plum Brook Ordnance Works, which would produce over half a million tonnes of pentolite, DNT and TNT during the war. Despite having no formal qualification, Morgan developed a unique skill – she proved brilliant at synthesising explosives. So vital did she become, that when she had an illegitimate child in 1944, even her prudish Ohioan managers could not let her go.

By the end of the war, Morgan was keen to continue working, but the options for an unqualified woman with an illegitimate child seemed minimal. She was saved by her knowledge of explosives and, as the Cold War heated up and the space race began in earnest, she was snapped up by North American Aviation for its Rocketdyne fuel division in Canoga Park, California.

Arriving at North American, she found she was the only woman on the engineering floor, working alongside 900 men, and the only one without a degree. Despite the odds, she was quickly promoted to theoretical performance specialist and tasked with solving the greatest space problem facing the US. Its space programme was based around the Vanguard rocket, although Wernher von Braun and his German naturalised team had designed a competing vehicle, the Jupiter C, based on a Redstone missile. However, the Redstone was considered more a military project than a scientific one and had proved to be too heavy to place a satellite in orbit. By the time the Russians did exactly that with Sputnik 1, it had become a matter of national pride for the US to join them in space with Vanguard.

While Vanguard was developed, Morgan was named technical lead scientist on the project at Rocketdyne and came up with a simple but brilliant solution to von Braun’s problem. She synthesised a new, exotic liquid fuel, which simply packed more punch than the standard 75 per cent ethyl alcohol fuel used previously. Morgan suggested her new fuel be called ‘Bagel’ as it would be used with the oxidiser LOX – Bagel and Lox. The Army, not finding rocket fuel to be a humorous subject, decided on ‘Hydyne’ instead.

Time was pressing. Having been stunned by the launch of Sputnik, the US prepared its Vanguard for launch in late 1957, only to be horrified as it very publicly exploded, just 1.2m off the launch pad. Von Braun was told to prepare his Jupiter C rocket for an immediate launch in a desperate attempt to save face. Fuelled with Hydyne, the rocket, now renamed Juno 1, was prepared at Cape Canaveral, with the eyes of the world waiting to see if the US space dream might end before it even began.

They needn’t have worried. Morgan’s fuel propelled the first US artificial satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on 31 January 1958. The launch brought fame to von Braun and his team and put the US on the road to the Moon. Yet no fame came to Morgan, who shunned publicity and, having been employed on ‘military projects’, faithfully kept her secrets as she had done since the war. So well did she hide her role in saving the US space programme that when she died in 2004, newspaper editors were unable to verify the obituary submitted by her son.

As he later recalled: “My mother had done such a good job of erasing herself from existence by not allowing anybody to write about her... nobody could verify that she ever even existed.” 

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