‘Rocket Girl’ tells tale of first female U.S. rocket scientist

A relatively recent addition to the shelves at both Minot Public Library and the astronomy/physics section of Barnes & Noble, George D. Morgan’s “Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist” is at first glance difficult to categorize into a single genre.

The focal point of the story is the unlikely career of Morgan’s mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, a North Dakota farmgirl turned chemist, who concocted munitions at an Ohio plant during World War II and afterward became the only woman on the engineering team at North American Aviation in Downey, Calif. As a theoretical performance specialist there she developed the liquid propellant hydyne, which would eventually fuel the Redstone rocket carrying America’s first satellite into space in 1958. In addition to marking the country’s entrance into a space race with the Soviet Union, that rocket technology would also become the basis for America’s early intercontinental ballistic missile armament.

“Rocket Girl” is not your regular, cut-and-dry biography. A playwright by trade, Morgan’s book began its life as a stage play and subsequently reads a bit like one, its chapters like acts with transitioning scenes as the various characters gradually intersect through circumstances only a world war can bring about. It is as much a biography about Mary Sherman Morgan as it is about the people in her periphery, some of whom she never met or knew of.

The narrative shuffles between her life and the stories of others, peers such as Irving Kanarek and her future husband, George Richard Morgan. A fair amount of attention gets paid to the German rocket scientist, possible war criminal, and eventual American postwar hero Wernher von Braun, the success of whose space-bound rocket her fuel made possible. Perhaps for contrast, the book occasionally examines the doings of Braun’s Soviet rival, Sergei Korolev, who like Morgan’s mother achieved great things yet spent his lifetime hidden from greatness by a closely-guarded anonymity.

While the sources contributing to the work have been widely drawn from other books, documents, personal effects and interviews, Morgan’s persistent use of artistic license to color in the little details keep the book from being strictly biographical. Though not a work in historical fiction, it also is not a science book, the technical workings of rocketry and chemistry serving more as background to the story than its subject.

The book is maybe best described as a novelization of the author’s efforts to better know his mother, an account of Morgan’s researches following her death in 2004. In his acknowledgements, Morgan admits to a number of gaps left in the narrative, but notes with satisfaction that despite many hurdles he ultimately achieved what he set out to do by preserving the memory of her achievements.

Instrumental as she was in her work and a pioneer for women in an overwhelmingly male field, Mary preferred to remain unnamed and unrecognized, retiring in 1955 in order to raise a family. The author notes that this anonymity was partly of her choosing, reticent as she was to discuss her past even with her own children.

Portrayed by her son as a withdrawn, intensely private figure, Mary Sherman Morgan had her passions as well, with as much love for the game of bridge as she had for chemistry and astroscience. Beyond that, the author claimed to know little else about her and was surprised at what he subsequently discovered. Without spoiling anything, Morgan admitted that the story he first planned to tell altered dramatically during the course of his research.

A pleasant and well-paced read, “Rocket Girl” brings together a variety of themes to produce a unique perspective of America’s first small steps toward manned space exploration.