The name of Mary Sherman Morgan has hitherto not been mentioned in any history of the early American space program, but it ought to be. That oversight is being rectified with the publication of “Rocket Girl” by her son, playwright George Brown.
Mary, to put the matter succinctly, handedly saved the American space program in its infancy by inventing a new rocket fuel called hydyne that was used to launch the first Explorer satellite into low Earth orbit in January, 1958. Hydyne, in combination with liquid oxygen, was the first rocket fuel that had a high enough specific impulse to launch a satellite into space.
Specific impulse, to put it in layman’s terms, is a way to describe the efficiency of a rocket engine. It represents the force with respect to the amount of propellant per unit of time. The higher the specific impulse, the more efficient the rocket engine is considered to be.
The problem facing American efforts to launch a satellite into space was to find a fuel combination that could be used in a Redstone rocket with a high enough specific impulse to reach low Earth orbit. That effort fell on Mary Sherman Brown, then an “analyst” working at North American Aviation. She was called that as her job title because, even though she was effectively a chemical engineer, she lacked a college degree. She used to joke that the difference between an analyst and an engineer was that an analyst did twice the work for half the pay.
Still, when the military needed someone to develop a fuel that could send America into space, North America Aviation chose Mary. There is a scene in the book when a military officer expressed astonishment to a North American manager that the future of the United States space program depended on a girl without a college degree. But Mary, by that time, knew things about the nature of rocket fuel that were not taught in any college.
The story of how Mary came to be at that nexus of history is a fascinating read. She was North Dakota farm girl who was forced to drop out of a small, Catholic college to work at a munitions plant during World War II. After the war, when jobs from women in the defense industry dried up, she managed to parlay that position to her employment at North America. Along the way she suffered the pain and shame of being an unwed mother in the 1940s.
Mary’s contribution was so unknown that even at the time Wernher von Braun was obliged to address her as “Dear Unknown Lady” is his thank you letter. Her story went untold for decades, partly because Mary herself was not prone to self promotion and had developed of habit of keeping quiet about her work long after it had become declassified. But now the story is told and, albeit posthumously, Mary Sherman Morgan will get the credit that is long overdue her.