On October 4, 1957, the United States received the greatest single blow to its prestige since the burning of the White House in 1814 with the announcement that the Soviet Union had become the first nation in world history to launch an artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit. This remarkable achievement, the brainchild of former political prisoner Sergei Korolev, caught the nation utterly flat-footed. The US possessed some of the greatest rocket scientists in the world, but had spent a decade frittering away their talents on the development of intercontinental weaponry rather than space flight. We had to get a rocket up, and fast, to save face, but had not yet invented the fuel capable of achieving that feat. To craft such a fuel, the nation needed someone who was both a brilliant chemist and mathematician with deep experience in analyzing the properties of combustion.

It got one, from just about the last place one would have thought to look.

Ray, North Dakota.

Today, the population of Ray stands just south of 800, and in 1921, when the star of our story was born, it boasted only 550 souls scrabbling out a living from agriculture. The Shermans were a hard family, and they bred hard, resourceful children, of whom their fifth was a daughter named Mary (1921-2004) who would go on to save the nation’s reputation in its darkest scientific hour. Her parents prevented her from going to school for years until the district forced their compliance and gave young Mary a horse to act as transport to and from the schoolhouse. From being the awkward older girl in class she vaulted by virtue of her natural brilliance and curiosity to become class valedictorian by the time of her high school graduation.

She knew she was smart, and that Depression-era Ray held no future for the gifted, so she ran away from home to attend college at Minot State University. Her skills in chemistry were soon noticed by her instructors, who passed her name along to a recruiter from Plum Brook Ordnance Works, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of TNT and other weaponry to the United States Army. It was World War II, the men were overseas, and factories like Plum Brook were desperate to hire gifted scientists and engineers to meet wartime production demands. In spite of being a woman, and not having yet actually completed her college degree, Mary Sherman was snapped up by Plum Brook and started work as a chemical analyst. It was a dangerous job, analyzing the purity of volatile and toxic compounds, but her breadth of knowledge of chemical processes and characteristic attention to detail kept her safe and appreciated during the long wartime work shifts.

The end of the war, however, brought with it a corresponding slackening of demand for bullets and TNT, and as plants downsized the jobs that remained were doled out to returning soldiers rather than retained by the women who had been doing them. Sherman had a sure nose for where the wind was blowing, and in 1947 made the transition from the fading munitions industry to the booming field of aeronautics, applying for a position at California’s North American Aviation. She was the only woman in a department of 900 male engineers, but her experience during the war at Plum Brook combined with her uncommonly developed mathematical analytic skills to overcome the fact that she never formally completed college.

At NAA (now Rocketdyne) she did the work of an engineer but was officially designated as an analyst because her lack of a degree did not entitle her to the rank, and corresponding higher pay, of an engineer. Her field of expertise soon became the analysis of propellants, designing different specialty fuels to maximize the output of different engine types. Rocket propulsion involves the combination of a fuel (a substance that burns when you combine it with oxygen) with an oxidizer (a substance that releases oxygen), and Sherman boasted an encyclopedic knowledge of all available fuels and oxidizers, from their commercial availability to the minute chemical properties that meant the difference between success and disaster. By 1957, she was NAA’s most precious propellant analyst and so it was to her that the job fell when the US government came to the NAA with a seemingly impossible task.

The German rocket scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, who had surrendered to the United States at the end of World War II had been employed for a decade by the US Army in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but had been designing their Redstone rockets for some time to have the ability to reach space if necessary. The problem was that, though the rocket was ready, the propellant did not yet exist to push it successfully into space. A mixture of properties was needed which the best and brightest minds of the German space program could not coax out of nature – a high specific impulse (which measures how much thrust one pound of propellant can produce) to push the rocket upwards against gravity, a high density to make maximum use of space, a good capacity for heat transfer so that the propellant could do double duty as fuel and as engine coolant, and the ability to function in the already designed Redstone engine system.

Von Braun’s team knew that, if they couldn’t create a propellant that worked with their current system, the only other choice was a complete redesign, which could take years, and time was something the post-Sputnik world was not offering in abundance. Unable to craft the propellant they needed, they threw the task to NAA, which in turn tossed it into the lap of their most gifted propellant designer, Mary Sherman (now Mary Sherman Morgan after her marriage to fellow engineer and heat transfer guru George Richard Morgan).  She was given two recruits fresh out of college by way of staff and told to solve a problem that the world leaders in the field had yet been able to crack.

Knowing that not only was her job on the line (NAA regularly fired 5% of its staff as a matter of company policy to motivate the other 95%), but the fate of the United States space program, she threw herself into the problem of inventing a new fuel. She systematically investigated and eliminated all known fuels as unobtainable, toxic, or insufficient to the task, and set about designing a fuel “cocktail” of her own using a mixture of 60% unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), which was a known fuel option, with 40% diethylenetriamine (DETA), which was a new and unproven chemical with an unusually high density. The combination of UDMH’s kick with DETA’s density proved exactly the solution needed to power von Braun’s rockets, and it was the propellant that placed America’s first satellite, Explorer-I, into orbit in January of 1958. 

The propellant was called Hydyne by the Army and though later rockets would be designed to allow the use of more powerful fuels, for that one moment in time, Hydyne was the solution the country’s space program desperately needed, and it was only found because Mary Sherman Morgan refused her colleague’s advice to investigate new oxidizers and followed her own instinct that the answer lay in creating a new cocktail guided by strict chemical property guidelines. After having performed this service, Morgan quietly retired from rocket science upon the arrival of her second child, and the rest of the story is not a happy one.

Deprived of the work that challenged her mind to its highest level, she spent most of the succeeding decades at home, chain-smoking while playing countless hands of solo bridge, moving from empty seat to empty seat as she played each of the four chairs in an attempt to win out against herself.  Obsessively shuffling and reshuffling the cards, and prone to flights of extreme anger, she was a forbidding and secretive presence to her children. Upon her death from emphysema in 2004, her son George D. Morgan began a monumental effort to learn the details of her life at last, and in doing so discovered her pivotal role in the rescuing of the US space program, a role she had successfully kept hidden for a half century. Her story, so nearly consigned to oblivion, is now available for all to see, a warm moment in the midst of a Cold War, and a sign that greatness can come from anywhere, even a town called Ray, North Dakota.

FURTHER READING:  I read Morgan’s biography of Mary Sherman Morgan, Rocket Girl,  in order to review it for a journal back when it came out in 2013 and absolutely savaged it in my subsequent writeup. Revisiting it now, some six years later, I am a good deal fonder of it (it seems to me a bit different than the ebook version I read back then so perhaps the paperback edition has been edited to some degree for the better). Is it difficult to extricate the facts of Mary’s career from George’s fictional embellishments?  Quite. Does it give the reader a full and plausible view of a figure who deserves to be known? Indeed it does, and I think the positive answer to the latter just compensates enough for the frustrations of the former to keep you going through a most interesting side alley in science history.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3