Mary Sherman Morgan
Very little is known about the career of a woman that is said to have single handedly saved the U.S. space program. Mary Sherman Morgan had always been a private person and working at North American Aviation during the 1950s on top secret work made her even more tight lipped. It wasn’t until her death that her son, playwright George Morgan, had a clue about her work and contributions to the great space race. At a meal following her funeral in 2004 one of her former colleagues spoke to George and urged him to learn more about his mother and share that knowledge with the public because Mary didn’t deserve to die with her contributions unknown.
Born in North Dakota, Morgan had dreams of being a chemist, attending college to pursue a degree but before she finished, World War II began and men were called to war. To fill empty laboratory positions women were recruited from colleges and she was hired at Plum Brook Ordnance Works before she finished her degree.
Here she was responsible for making explosives like TNT, DNT, and pentolite. After the war she applied to work at North American Aviation and so with just a high school diploma but experience with explosive propellants, she was hired as an engineer for the company.
When the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite to orbit the Earth, setting off the great Space Race, America could only launch surface rockets as they lacked the fire power to launch anything into space. NAA was selected to work on this challenge and knowing Morgan’s talents as a chemist they assigned her the job. Named technical lead for the project she started her work on the new fuel in 1956 when she was a chemical engineer at Rocketdyne’s propulsion research thermodynamics unit.
Created by Morgan in 1957 hydyne gave the extra power needed to push rockets beyond our planet’s atmosphere and was used as the fuel for the first stage of the Juno I rocket that launched Explorer 1, the first successful satellite launched by the United States.
Suggested by: Gisele Matheus Johnson
Written by Angela Goad