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America’s First Female Rocket Scientist Ran Away From Home to Become a Chemist

Today would have been Mary Morgan’s 95th birthday.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Nov 4 2016, 8:31pm

On what would have been her 95th birthday, let's remember Mary Morgan, the first female rocket scientist, who invented a new type of rocket fuel that put the first American satellite into orbit.

Morgan was born in North Dakota in 1921. A nerd from the get-go, Morgan cultivated a love of chemistry in her teens and graduated as her high school's valedictorian in 1939. Her father was against the idea of Morgan pursuing higher education, so the night she graduated high school she ran away from home to pursue a degree in chemistry at a small college in Ohio.

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Morgan postponed her education when she was offered a lucrative, top-secret job at a munitions factory in Ohio based on her background in chemistry.

"We have all heard of Rosie the Riveters taking these blue collar jobs during the war, but what is less well known is that there were all these women working in white collar jobs, too," Mary Morgan's son and biographer, George Morgan, told Motherboard. "[The munitions factory] was so desperate to hire people during the war that even though she only had two years of chemistry in college, they hired her as a chemist."

Morgan's prowess in this pursuit was quickly noticed and after the war she was hired by North American Aviation, one of the largest aerospace companies in the US during WWII. Morgan was employed in the company's Rocketdyne Division, which had received a contract from the Defense Department to improve the efficiency of rocket propellant so that a Jupiter missile could make it to orbit.

Out of the 900 engineers employed by North American Aviation, Morgan was the only woman and one of only a handful of employees without a college degree.

"The thing that always bothered my mother was that because she was without a college degree, they wouldn't give her an engineering title even though all the work she was doing was engineering," said Morgan. "She did all the work of her fellow male engineers, but they called her an analyst which got a lot less pay."

The Explorer I, which was propelled into orbit by Morgan's rocket fuel. Image: NASA

As the technical lead of the NAA project to develop a better rocket fuel, Morgan was responsible for the development of a new type of propellant called Hydyne-Liquid Oxygen (LOX). Originally, Morgan wanted to call the new fuel 'Bagel' so that the full name would be 'Bagel and LOX' (riffing on the name for brined salmon served with a bagel and cream cheese), a brief flash of humor that her son says he rarely saw at home.

"Growing up with my mother was like growing up with Spock," said Morgan. "She didn't have any of that normal, motherly affection for her kids like most mothers. Everything for her was math, science, and analytical reasoning."

Morgan was still able to juggle raising four children with her burgeoning career. After the development of Hydyne-LOX, Morgan had calculated that her new fuel would provide the Jupiter rocket with enough of a boost to put it into orbit. During the first test flight using the new fuel in November of 1956, her calculation was proven correct.

Although the Soviets still beat the US to space with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, Morgan's fuel was used to propel a Jupiter rocket carrying America's first satellite—Explorer I—into orbit just three months later.

Despite her critical contribution to turning America into a spacefaring nation, Morgan's role in the history of US space exploration was overshadowed by men like Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi who was styling himself into the father of modern American rocketry during his frequent television appearances. Although George Morgan said his mother must've been aware of the magnitude of her contributions to the program, she was never one to talk about it much.

"We were sitting at a dinner table one day when I was a teenager and my dad says, 'By the way, did you know your mom invented the rocket fuel that boosted the first satellite into orbit?'" said Morgan. "When I confronted my mother about it and asked her why she never told me about her work, all she said was 'I just didn't want to.'"

Even though Morgan didn't feel like talking about her role in taking the US to space, her son wouldn't take no for an answer. George Morgan has dedicated a significant portion of his life to discovering and telling his mother's story, which he chronicled in a stage play and biography to ensure that America's first female rocket scientist will never be forgotten by history.