Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mary Sherman Morgan—The Woman Who Sent Us Into Orbit

Mary Sherman Morgan receives some sort of trophy.  We will assume it was not for bowling.

Until a son began to unravel the extraordinary story of his beloved mother’s life after her death in 2004 at the age of 82 no one had heard about her remarkable life and achievement.  When an elderly former associate approached George Morgan at Mary Sherman Morgan’s funeral and said that she “single-handedly saved America’s space program… and nobody knows it but a handful of old men,” it set the son on a mission to discover the woman who had carefully cloaked her life.  That was because she honored to the letter the vows of secrecy she took in a career that began as a pioneer chemical engineer developing explosives and munitions during World War II and continued as a scientist with the highest security clearances working for a contractor in infant U.S. space program.
Mary Sherman was born to a poor farm family on the foreboding plains near Ray, North Dakota in the state’s northwest corner on November 4, 1921.  She was the fifth of six children of Michael and Dorothy Sherman.  It was a hard life with few prospects or expectations for a girl except for her to become a farm wife in turn.  But Mary was extraordinarily bright.  Not only did she finish high school—a rare enough event in its own right in that time and place—but she was the class valedictorian in 1939.  Not only that, but she had a firm admission—to become of all things a chemist.
Mary Sherman's High School photo.

She enrolled at Minot State University but apparently did not take classes there.  Instead, in one of the first mysteries of her life, she appeared in Catholic DeSales College in Toledo, Ohio.  She had relatives in Ohio and lived with them.  Sherman diligently pursued her studies until the American entry into World War II.  The war created an acute shortage of chemists and other scientists as young men went into the armed services.  Recruiters scoured the country for bright prospects to fill the needs of war production.  Most likely on the recommendation of an instructor at DeSales, Mary was offered a job a factory in Sandusky.  She could not be told what the factory made, or what her duties would be.  But sensing it was important work, Sherman took the job with the intention of completing her education after the war.  In fact she never got back to the classroom.
The factory was the Plum Brook Ordnance Works, a munitions factory which manufactured high explosives including TNT, DNT, and pentolite.  Despite her lack of a degree and work experience, Sherman was soon functioning as a chemical engineer.
In 1943 she found herself in the predicament of many attractive young ladies during the war years when romances were intense and often cut short when the young man was shipped overseas—she found herself pregnant and alone.  Although the commonness of the situation took off some of the worst of the traditional stigma of unmarried motherhood, pregnancy would commonly lead to a discharge from employment and in Sherman’s case could have led to a loss of her critical security clearance under the theory that it made her vulnerable to blackmail by enemy agents and saboteurs.  But she never lost her job, a testimony of how highly valued her work was at the Ordinance Works, and also that her bosses may have helped shield her from exposure to the FBI.
She gave birth to a daughter, Mary G. Sherman, in 1944 while living with her first cousin Mary Hibbard  and her husband Irving in Huron, Ohio.  The couple soon adopted the girl and raised her as their own under the name Ruth Esther Hibbard. 
The discovery that he had a half sister was just the most personal of his mother’s secrets that George Morgan discovered after her death.
By the time her war time employment ended Sherman as designer of high explosive munitions.
Unlike many women who did “man’s work” during the war, Sherman did not quietly withdraw from the work place or even go back to school for her undergraduate degree and possible post graduate work.  Instead she found her particular skills highly sought after.  She was hired by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation in Canoga Park, California.  The defense contractor specializing in the emerging field of rocketry quickly grew to employ 900 engineers.  Sherman was the only woman and one of only a handful who lacked any kind of college degree.  But she advanced rapidly and was soon made Theoretical Performance Specialist, which entailed mathematically calculating the expected performance of new rocket propellants.

Mary Sherman Morgan  with her husband and oldest son--and eventual biographer--George.

North American Aviation she met and fell in love with a mechanical engineer, George Richard Morgan who was a recent graduate of Cal Tech.  They married and eventually had four children, George, Stephen, Monica, and Karen.  She continued to work will in some ways being an ideal 1950’s mom.  Growing up her children knew almost nothing about her work except that it was some kind of important job in a local plant that employed many of their neighbors.
Going into the ‘50’s the United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to adapt and improve the rocket technology obtained from the Nazis at the end of the war.  Space exploration was the ostensible goal, but both countries were eager to develop reliable long range missile systems capable of delivering nuclear war heads against the other.  Morgan, working in a group led by Dr. Jacob Silverman was made the technical lead of a sub-group assigned to develop a more powerful fuel for the modified Redstone rockets that our German, Werner Von Braun, was developing.  A woman at the head of an all male team at this advanced level was virtually unheard of.
Morgan and her team developed a new liquid fuel composed of a blend of 60% unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and 40% diethylenetriamine (DETA).  The highly volatile fuel was needed to increase the thrust of the Army’s Redstone missiles necessary to launch heavier articles like satellites or nuclear warheads.  Morgan calculated that the new fuel would produce a 12% increase thrust and higher specific impulse than the military version which used an alcohol based fuel.  The new fuel was tested in a successful Research and Development test flight of a Redstone on November 29, 1956.  Subsequently it was tested successfully on Von Braun’s advanced modifications of the Redstone dubbed Jupiter-C and later Juno.
Morgan’s new fuel was used in combination with Liquid Oxygen—LOX.  She playfully suggested that her fuel be named Bagel so that the combination would be LOX and Bagel.  Her not so playful superiors named the fuel Hydine.
The Space Race heated up when both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. announced that they would launch an earth orbiting satellite during the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY).  The Russians succeeded in putting Sputnik 1 into orbit on October 4, 1957 sending America into a panic and putting pressure on the Eisenhower administration to get something—anything—into orbit ASAP.  Despite the promise of the Redstone/Jupiter C rockets developed by Von Braun and with first stages powered by Hydine could be ready to launch a heavy real research satellite within two months, the Department of Defense preferred the competing Vanguard rockets developed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) based on three stage Viking rockets.  They Vanguard first stage was powered by an LOX/kerosene.  Only two test flights had been completed and the NRL knew that the rocket could not deliver enough lift put satellite that would match the Soviet payload.  Instead the rushed to launch a symbolic 2.9 lb. ball of no scientific usefulness but containing a radio transmitter. 
On December 6, 1957 on live television the Vanguard rocket and its grapefruit sized payload was launched by the Navy from Cape Canaveral.  It got only four feet off the launch pad before it fell over and spectacularly exploded.  It was a hugely humiliating and discouraging setback for both the U.S. space program and its international prestige.

Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite, is successfully launched atop a Juno 1 rocket whose first stage was fueled by LOX/Hydine. 

The administration now turned to Von Braun’s Army sponsored project.  He prepared his most advanced rocket, a modified Jupiter C renamed Juno I.  On January 31with its first stage flawlessly powered by the LOX/Hydine mixture, the rocket delivered another small satellite named Explorer I into successful orbit.  The U.S. was back in the Space Race, prestige restored, and a jittery public reassured.
There were only a total of six Jupiter C/Juno launches before more powerful rockets and fuels replaced it.  Such is the march of science and engineering.  Much was built on the shoulders of Mary Sherman Morgan and her team.  In fact she continued to work on rocket fuels for years to come and was highly respected in her field.
After her retirement, Morgan shunned the spotlight.  Only a few technical journals ever mentioned her name.  She lived quietly enjoying her family in retirement.  Like many women of her generation she was a life-long smoker which caused her death by emphysema on August 4, 2004.

George Morgan's "imaginative non-fiction" biography his his mother.

Her son George’s quest to learn about his mother bore fruit in a well received play based on her life, Rocket Girl, was produced by Theater Arts at California Institute of Technology and premiered on November 17, 2008.  Later in 2014 George Morgan with Ashley Stroupe published Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist.  He described the book as creative non-fiction meaning that he used imagined dialogue and other techniques to advance his story.  The book was generally well received by critics and did succeed in sparking interest in this intriguing and pioneering woman, including this blog entry. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for getting it right, especially the names and places for Mary and Irving Hibbard. :-) You would have liked the mother who raised me...also a champion of "social justice, peace, civil rights and other causes."

    Ruth Esther Mary Hibbard Fichter (nee Mary G. Sherman- 1944)