Mary Sherman Morgan

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Mary Sherman Morgan
Mary Sherman

(1921-11-04)November 4, 1921
DiedAugust 4, 2004(2004-08-04) (aged 82)
Alma mater[DeSales College of Toledo, Ohio]]
Spouse(s)George Richard Morgan
Engineering career
Employer(s)Plum Brook Ordnance Works;
North American Aviation
ProjectsRedstone rocket
Significant designHydyne

Mary Sherman Morgan (November 4, 1921 – August 4, 2004) was a U.S. rocket fuel scientist credited with the invention of the liquid fuel Hydyne in 1957, which powered the Jupiter-C rocket that boosted the United States' first satellite, Explorer 1.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

The second youngest of six siblings, Mary Sherman was born to Michael and Dorothy Sherman on their farm in Ray, North Dakota. In 1939, she graduated as her high school's valedictorian.[2] She then enrolled at North Dakota's Minot State University as a chemistry major.[1][3]


During Morgan's college education the Second World War broke out. As a result of men going overseas, the United States soon developed a shortage of chemists and other scientists. A local employment recruiter heard that Sherman had chemistry knowledge, and offered her a job at a factory in Sandusky, Ohio. He would not tell her what product the factory made, or what her job would be—only that she would be required to obtain a 'top secret' security clearance. Short on money, she decided to take the job even though it would mean having to postpone her degree. The job turned out to be at the Plum Brook Ordnance Works munitions factory, charged with the responsibility of manufacturing explosives trinitrotoluene (TNT), dinitrotoluene (DNT), and pentolite. The site produced more than one billion pounds of ordnance throughout World War II.[1][4]

Mary Sherman became pregnant in 1943 out of wedlock, a difficult dilemma in an era when this was considered extremely shameful and women were often given back-alley abortions or hidden from their friends and family. At that time she was living with her first cousin in Huron, Ohio. In 1944, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary G. Sherman,[1][5] whom she later gave up for adoption to that cousin, Mary Hibbard and her husband, Irving. The child was renamed Ruth Esther.[1][6]

After spending the war years designing explosives for the military, she applied for a job at North American Aviation, and was employed in their Rocketdyne Division, Division, based in Canoga Park, California.[7] Soon after being hired, she was promoted to Theoretical Performance Specialist, a job that required her to mathematically calculate the expected performance of new rocket propellants.[7][8] Out of 900 engineers, she was the only woman, and one of only a few without a college degree.[1][9]

While working at North American Aviation, she met her future husband, George Richard Morgan, a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Caltech. Together they had four children—George, Stephen, Monica and Karen.[1][9]

Space race era[edit]

External video
video icon “The Woman Who Saved the U.S. Space Race (And Other Unsung Scientists)”, Reactions

During the development program for the Jupiter missile, Wernher von Braun's team used modified Redstone missiles, dubbed the Jupiter C, to accelerate the rocket to orbital velocities. In order to improve the performance of the first stage, they awarded a contract to North American Aviation's Rocketdyne Division to come up with a more powerful fuel.[10]

Morgan worked in the group of Dr. Jacob Silverman at North American Aviation's Rocketdyne Division.[11] Due to her expertise and experience with new rocket propellants, Morgan was named the technical lead on the contract. Morgan's work resulted in a new propellant, Hydyne. The first Hydyne-powered Redstone R&D flight took place on 29 November 1956,[12] and Hydyne subsequently powered three Jupiter C nose cone test flights.[13]

In 1957, the Soviet Union and the United States had set a goal of placing satellites into Earth orbit as part of a worldwide scientific celebration known as the International Geophysical Year.[14] In this endeavor the United States effort was called Project Vanguard.[14] The Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957, an event followed soon after by a very public and disastrous explosion of a Vanguard rocket. Political pressure forced U.S. politicians to allow a former German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun,[15] to prepare his Jupiter C rocket for an orbital flight. In the renamed launcher (now called Juno I) the propellant succeeded in launching America's first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on January 31, 1958.[9]

After the Jupiter C and six Juno I launches,[13] the U.S. switched to more powerful fuels.[16]

Alternative fuel name[edit]

As Hydyne-LOX (liquid oxygen) was the fuel combination used for the Redstone rocket, Morgan whimsically suggested naming her new fuel formulation Bagel, since the rocket's propellant combination would then be called Bagel and LOX.[7][9][17] Her suggested name for the new fuel was not accepted, and Hydyne was chosen instead by the U.S. Army. The standard Redstone was fueled with a 75% ethyl alcohol solution, but the Jupiter-C first stage had used Hydyne fuel, a blend of 60% unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and 40% diethylenetriamine (DETA).[18] This was a more powerful fuel than ethyl alcohol, but it was also more toxic.[19] The fuel was used with the Rocketdyne Redstone rocket only once—to launch America's first satellite Explorer I, after which it was discontinued in favor of higher performing fuels.

Death and tribute[edit]

Morgan died of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) emphysema on August 4, 2004 at 82 years old, despite having quit her heavy smoking habit, for lent, 29 years earlier. In July 2013, BBC's online News Magazine released a short video tribute to Morgan, narrated by her son George Morgan.[20]

Mary Sherman Morgan was the subject of a semi-biographical stage play written by her son, George Morgan. The play, Rocket Girl, was produced by Theater Arts at California Institute of Technology (TACIT), directed by Brian Brophy, and ran at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California on November 17, 2008. George Morgan admitted that he knew surprisingly little about his mother's life and work when she died, as she worked in an industry connected to defense and national security and was limited in what she could discuss. The younger Morgan had built and launched homemade rockets with friends in the Arizona desert and as he recalled, "If I'd known how much expertise in rocketry my mother had, we could have asked her for help and saved ourselves a great deal of trouble." Her penchant for keeping secrets was such that George Morgan did not even know she was ill with emphysema until the last few months of her life, nor was he aware of his half-sister until 2007.[7][9]


  • George D. Morgan, Rocket Girl. The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, Prometheus Books, 2013. ISBN 9781616147396


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Morgan, George D.; with Ashley Phd Stroupe. Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist, Prometheus Books, 2013, ISBN 1616147393, ISBN 978-1616147396.
  2. ^ Alumni Records: 1936-1940, Ray High School, Nesson 2 School District, Williams County, ND
  3. ^ Alumni Records, Minot State University, Minot, Ward County, ND
  4. ^ US Dept of Defense, Formerly Used Defense Sites, Site Number: G05OH0018
  5. ^ April 1944 Birth Records, St Vincent's Hospital, Philadelphia, PA
  6. ^ Final Decree, June 8, 1946: Probate Court Records, Sandusky, Erie County, Ohio
  7. ^ a b c d Lerner, Preston, "Soundings: She Put The High In Hydyne". Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, February/March 2009, Vol.23, No.6, pp.10, ISSN 0886-2257.
  8. ^ Draxler, Breanna. "Rocket Girl" (book review), Discover (magazine), July–August 2013, p. 25.
  9. ^ a b c d e Morgan, George. America's First Lady of Rocketry, Caltech News, California Institute of Technology, Vol.42, No.1.
  10. ^ Robert S. Kraemer & Vince Wheelock: “Rocketdyne: powering humans into space”. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 2006, pp. 43–44.
  11. ^ Missiles and Rockets. American Aviation Publications. January 1958. Retrieved 7 June 2013. Nicknamed Hydyne, the fuel increased thrust and missile range by 12 per cent over that of a conventional Redstone engine. Dr. Jacob Silverman, supervisor of Rocketdyne's propulsion research thermodynamics unit and a leader in the development of Hydyne, first started work on the new compound early in 1956. The problem faced by Silverman and the company's chemical engineers was that of developing a fuel that would increase performance and could be substituted for the alcohol usually burned in the Redstone engine.
  12. ^ History of the Redstone Missile System, p. 60
  13. ^ a b History of the Redstone Missile System, p. 166
  14. ^ a b Dickson, Paul: “Sputnik, The Shock of the Century”. Walker & Company. 2001
  15. ^ Bob Ward: “Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun”. Naval Institute Press, 2005
  16. ^ NASA. The Mercury-Redstone Project, p. 3-2, 4-42.
  17. ^ Morgan, George D. Rocket Girl: A play about the life of America's first female rocket scientist Mary Sherman Morgan Archived 2013-11-26 at the Wayback Machine, website, November 2008.
  18. ^ The Mercury-Redstone Project, p. 2-2.
  19. ^ The Mercury-Redstone Project, p. 3-2, 4-42.
  20. ^ Taylor Hiegel, Bill McKenna. Remembering the US's first female rocket scientist, BBC New Magazine website, July 17, 2013.

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