By Natalie Panek – A few weeks ago, WYSK sent me a tip, via Twitter, regarding a woman they thought I should know and a book that I definitely needed to check out; Rocket Girl, about America’s first female Rocket Scientist, Mary Sherman Morgan.
I managed to find one copy at a local book store (and a second copy about a week later to bring to a close friend and fellow female engineer studying at Stanford).
Mary Sherman was born in Ray, North Dakota in 1921 (- 2004). The book is written from the point of view of her son and he immediately provides context for Mary’s life and for the basis of the book. Mary grew up on a farm – a place of contrasts where she could let her imagination run wild, but also where she faced constant abuse. She started school 3 years late, never had the eyeglasses she required, and was constantly tormented by her brothers. She found solace in the wheat fields where she could escape from everyone and dream of the stars.
Mary had shown a strong aptitude for learning, especially the science and math fields. So when it came time to go to college, Mary had no other choice. She decided to secretly leave home. Despite making this decision, World War II changed her fate. She was recruited by Plum Brook Ordnance Works to produce Trinitrotoluene (TNT), Dinitrotoluene (DNT), and Pentolite during the war. Since there was an extreme shortage of chemists and other scientists, her undeniable potential in this field was noticed. But this job was a means to an end. It was a means to money to survive – even if it meant postponing her degree.
After the war, Mary applied for a job at North American Aviation and was hired as a Theoretical Performance Specialist, in which she calculated the expected performance of rocket propellants. Mary’s story is important for many reasons. Out of nine hundred engineers, she was the only woman. Beyond this, she was only one of a few without a college degree, yet had the unwavering support of her supervisors. She was known as the best of the best among her co-workers and had the workload to prove it.
Mary’s boss Tom Meyers undeniably believed in her abilities. And he gave no hesitation when recommending Mary’s name to the military for the development of a new rocket fuel that would be able to carry a satellite into orbit. When the General gawked at the fact that she was a woman (and without a college degree!), Tom stood his ground.
This decision was the stepping stone in the history of the Space Race. As a result, Mary developed the liquid Hydyne fuel, which powered the Jupiter-C rocket for America’s first satellite launch, Explorer 1.
She was fearless and bold in how she went about her work, the decisions she made, and how she presented herself.
I found the storytelling in this book very interesting. The perspective often shifted from Mary’s to Wernher von Braun (known as the ‘Father of Rocket Science’) to Sergei Korolev (lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer). At first I found this distracting from Mary’s story as I wanted to learn more. But I appreciate the importance of relaying history in such a way – when three scientists and three countries were simultaneously pushing the limits of space exploration and attempting to push beyond the boundaries of Earth’s orbit first. It was important to understand an international perspective of the same race.
While the space race was a politically driven era, it had a fundamental impact on youth. Girls and boys wanted to know about the world of rocket science and participate in this new era of exploration and space travel. Mary Sherman Morgan, von Braun, and Korolev accomplished a feat greater than a satellite launch; they inspired a future generation of engineers and inspired youth to pursue careers that they may never have otherwise considered.
Beyond this, I loved that Mary did not just want to read books and perform calculations. She wanted to see her work in action and made sure to visit the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory to witness the engine tests using her fuel. She wanted to see the smoke, the high-speed flames, and experience the roaring of the engine. She was fearless and bold in how she went about her work, the decisions she made, and how she presented herself. She proved there is value in arming yourself with the ammunition to succeed and had confidence to engage in dialogues that proved her mettle.
Mary is described in the book as “A woman who cared nothing for notoriety, a true anachronism in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.” While I find this refreshing, there is part of me that is saddened by the fact that such an important part of history and such an important female-figure in the engineering world is so little known. These are the types of women and the stories that should inspire the next generation of females to want to change the world. These are the women who should be at the forefront of the media.
About This Guest Contributor:
WYSK would like to thank Rocket Scientist and STEM rock star Natalie Panek for contributing this book review.
At just 28 years old, Natalie is a robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions in Canada. Among countless other achievements, this accomplished Woman You Should Know drove a solar-powered car across North America, co-authored papers on flames burning in microgravity and repairing broken satellites in space, has a pilot’s license, and skydived with Korea’s first Astronaut (a woman). She’s also a spirited advocate for encouraging women to take risks and dive head-on into challenging careers.
To that end, Natalie regularly speaks at events on leadership, women in technology, and space exploration. In addition, she founded The Panek Room, a digital destination of resources that promises “Revolution.Inspiration.Adventure.” from science, engineering, and technology.
To learn more about Natalie, our latest brain crush, be sure to check out her WYSK profile.