June 3, 2020

Review: Rocket Girl by George D. Morgan

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The untold tales of the early Space Age are legion. Many of these were shrouded in secrecy, while others simply fell to the bureaucratic wayside. There’s no doubt some amazing stories are still left to tell in the piles of dusty documents and long lost archival footage in vaults that no one remembers…

The story of Mary Sherman Morgan is just one such fascinating legacy. This week’s review Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist tells the account of the invention of hydyne and its use as rocket fuel for the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to be placed in orbit in 1958.

Out from Prometheus Books, Rocket Girl is written with a creative non-fiction narrative by Mary’s son, George D. Morgan. We’re along for the ride, following Mr. Morgan as he pieces together hints of his mother’s life and her top secret work for Plum Brook Ordnance Works and later North American Aviation. Mary had to overcome a hardscrabble life, growing up a farmer’s daughter in Ray, North Dakota during the Great Depression and starting school years behind her peers.

Her natural ability for chemistry brought her to the attention of her instructors, and later a local recruiter. We thought it remarkable that she was approached by a recruiter for Plum Brook as a college student and wound up doing munitions work practically the next day! This was a time when chemists and researchers were in short supply, and this allowed Mary to move into a paying job literally overnight.

Meanwhile, the seeds of the coming Space Race were being sown overseas. Rocket Girl also traces the legacy of Dr. Werner von Braun and the German rocket scientists that were to be divvied up between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. From such desperate backgrounds these brightest minds of their generation found themselves with the opportunity to see their dreams of spaceflight become reality.

The launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957 caught the world off guard. Rocket Girl also traces the political squabbling that ensured the U.S. came in second place in the early Space Age firsts. While the U.S. Army knew it needed Von Braun and his technical knowhow, it was also suspicious of his early attempts, even “sand-bagging” his rockets to assure that they didn’t accidentally make it into orbit! Inter-service rivalry also plagued the Vanguard program, which was hobbled by one disaster after another.

The pressure came down on North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne Division to deliver, and Mary Sherman Morgan and her team rose to the challenge. The dilemma; create a rocket fuel that would enable the Redstone/Jupiter C rocket to hoist a satellite into orbit without requiring further re-engineering of the design. Mary Sherman Morgan’s creation of a Hydyne-Liquid Oxygen combination made the first U.S. spaceflight a reality, a combination they jokingly referred to as “Bagel & LOX.”

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!


  1. Thanks, David, for a great review !!

  2. David Dickinson says:

    You’re welcome… was a fascinating read!

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