The Hardcore of Yore: Mary Sherman Morgan

There is a book about her, now, but it’s not particularly well-written; I think its author tried a bit too hard. But it’s a quick, light read. I hate the title: Rocket Girl. [amz]

Mary Morgan wanted to learn stuff and was smart and curious – which is not exactly an advantage for someone growing up in rural America in the 1930s. Rural electrification was just happening, and schools were a hit-or-miss affair. In the case of young Mary Morgan, aged 12, that equated to the sheriff having to go out and tell her drunkard father that he had to let her go to school, and couldn’t just keep her as free farm-labor. Then Betty Manning, from the school board, solves Mary’s school busing problem:

Most of the storm clouds had moved on, leaving a brilliant midday sun to brighten the Dakota prairie. A slight breeze blew, creating waves along the tops of the grasses and pulling with it the dreams of young girls.

“Do you like horses?”

Mary nodded.

Would you like one for your very own?” Betty walked to the back of the trailer with the girl in tow. Mary could hear the animal’s huge lungs breathing in and out as the woman opened the rear trailer door.

“Come on, boy.” She pulled out a short wooden ramp and led the horse down to the muddy ground.

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you give him a name?”

Mary thought a while, looking around the farm as if for some sign or inspiration.

“I’m going to name him Star.”


“Every night I like to come out here and look up at the planets and the stars. I like to watch them move across the sky. I’m going to name him Star.”

Like far too many young girls, Mary had to fight to get herself an education, in a place and time when girls were expected to grow up and make housewives. She had to run away from home to go to college, where she finally escaped sadistic beatings from her brothers and drunkard father, and fell in love with and studied chemistry.

Not much later, she applied for work at North American Aviation, and got a job as a chemical engineer. That led her to become a Theoretical Performance Specialist – a chemist responsible for calculating how much energy a particular mix of molecules would release – jet fuel, rocket fuel, it’s all chemistry. This was early in the days of ‘the space race’ and WWII had just ended: the value of rockets and jets was clear and the US was working on exotic cocktails that would fuel them. Like so many things on the cutting edge of technology, it’s the land of infinite trade-offs: this combination might be more energetic than that one, but it’s corrosive, or toxic, or it would make Derek Lowe leave the room. [lowe]

Mary Morgan figured out the right mixes of stuff, that had the right properties to get US rockets into space. I hadn’t realized what a touchy-feely problem that must have been, because today we “know” what mixes are good rocket fuel, and which aren’t. But there was a time when we didn’t know, and that knowledge was Morgan’s contribution. It must have been interesting, back in the day, to be a chemical plant operator and get a call from a polite young woman:

“Nick Toby, Lansing Chemical.”

“Yes, Nick. Mary Morgan at North American Aviation. How are you?”

“I’m, uh, I’m fine. How are you?”

“Great. Hey, I was looking over this product brochure you left me on diethylenetriamine. Do you guys still make this stuff?”

“DETA? Well, we were about to close down production for lack of…”

“I want to order some. What did you call it?”

“We refer to it as DETA.”

“I just need a small amount to start. But if it works out we may need quite a bit more.”

“Okay. How much do you want?”

“I’d like to start with an order of four.”

“Four. Four pounds?”

“No, no. Four tons.”

“Four tons.”

Names like “hydrazine” and “DETA” are familiar now (sort of) because someone figured them out, and named them. That someone was Mary. She jokingly suggested they call it “BAGEL” because the spacecraft were going to fly on Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and that was a good thing to go with LOX. Mary’s mixture was 10% more dense than alcohol, with a 10% improvement in specific impulse, and they called it “Hydyne.”

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I love the bit about giving a young girl a horse so she can get to school. What a great way of teaching … something. Something about loyalty and stubbornness – can you imagine going to school on horseback in the winter?

Not to continue harping on the “confederate statues” issue, but maybe someone should knock down a statue of Lee and replace it with a statue to Traveller, his horse. There’s a painfully beautiful book by Richard Adams written from Traveller’s perspective [amazon] and another lovely bit of work by Connie Willis, Lincoln’s Dreams [amaz]  In my mind’s eye, somewhere out in Dakota, there should be a bronze statue of Star, Mary’s horse, waiting to do his thing for his person, because that’s what horses do when they’re asked nicely. Perhaps the horse is looking up, with a bit of curiosity, as if deciding whether it’s scared of a ballistic missile that’s roaring up into the clear blue sky.


  1. jrkrideau says

    can you imagine going to school on horseback in the winter?

    Well yes, though I’ve never done it. My school did not have stabling and we were only two kilometres from the school. Walking was probably just as fast and efficient—horses are high maintenance.

    Dad did occasionally pick us up with a two-horse team and sleigh when the weather was bad.

  2. says

    I never know how long to go on with my postings. There were a lot of parts (obviously, since I was distilling bits from a whole book) that I didn’t go into.

    Like the time when her brothers were harassing her and Star, and were threatening to side-swipe the ageing, numpty horse and the girl off the road into a fence, and Star reached down and found his inner champion and jumped over the fence to safety. There are moments in the book that make you want to go back in time with a baseball bat and deliver some rough lessons.

    I left out the bit about how she suffered from mostly-undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may have helped her with her chemistry, and which manifested itself as her becoming a championship bridge player.

    There was another part I nearly added, which I should have, but at the time I didn’t want to type it all in, but… This is a delicious scene. Picture Derek Lowe at the back of the room, standing up quietly and sidling out the door as Mary takes charge of a meeting:

    Mary shook her head.
    “You’ve got all sorts of oxidizers on here. I told you: we’re focusing in the fuel side of the system.” She grabbed a black marker and pulled off its cap.
    “I’ll save you boys some work.”
    Using the marker she began crossing chemicals off the list.
    “Let’s see, you’ve got alcohol with flourine, I what you’re thinking, the Redstone is already alcohol-compliant, so why not lean toward it. But the oxidizer side of the system will not withstand even a slight amount of flourine. So we’ll cross out flourine and all its derivatives like FLOX; already considered and dismissed. What else ya got here? Hydrazine – no. Monomethyl hydrazine – no. Aniline with ozone; that would give us a good isp but ozone is too unstable – that’s a no. Propane with LOX – no. JP-4 with LOX – wrong mixture ratio. Same problem with all the kerosene pairs you have here – no, no, no. Hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene – my God, how did you even know about that one? Mixed with flourine – already a no. Matched with nitrous oxide – isp will be too low. Ethylene with LOX – not bad – we’ll hold onto that one. Ammonia with LOX – no. B2H6 with hydrazine as an oxidizer? Innovative but hydrazine is out on both sides. Aniline with RFNA – no. Hydrogen … Hydrogen!? What have you been drinking? Methane with LOX – that might take us somewhere. Lithium with flourine? My god, you boys are dangerous. RP-1 with nitrous oxide – no. Turpentine with nitric acid – no. And finally nitrogen tetroxide and pentaborate with LOX – no and no.”
    The posters were now covered in black ink X’s with every chemical formula combination crossed out save for two. Bill and Toru looked disappointed.
    “We worked hard on that.”

  3. says

    Thank you!

    family values are so often so very, very evil

    There is some really nasty stuff in the book about her; it made me see red a couple times. I was happy that she managed to escape and have a good life; unfortunately those who oppressed her got away with it (as usual) though I console myself with the thought that their lives were probably hard, and wasted.

  4. says

    Dad did occasionally pick us up with a two-horse team and sleigh when the weather was bad.

    That’s kinda awesome!

    I went to school a mile and a half from home. So I just bicycled everywhere; I got to be so fast on a bicycle that I didn’t even notice little things like couple miles. I used to pedal along with no hands on the bars, in top gear, reading a book… Everyone thought I was showing off but, no, really, I was catching up on my reading.

  5. says

    Reading about rocket fuel reminds me of Charles Stross’ “A Tall Tail“

    The references to FOOF and Flourine, and rockets that burn and emit hydroflouric acid, sounds like Stross has been reading Derek Lowe. And, why not? Lowe is awesome, and that’s a delightful story.

    Leonard shook his head. “Nonsense.” A small smile. “You see, then there was my second proposal. If you replace the oxidizer in the space shuttle main engines with liquid fluorine, you could also get an extra twenty percent out of them. And I know what you’re going to say next: wouldn’t that give rise to an exhaust plume of extremely hot hydrofluoric acid? You’re absolutely right: it would! But hydrofluoric acid reacts with beryllium oxide to give you beryllium fluoride—which is almost inert in comparison—and hydrochloric acid, which is neither here nor there.” A shadow crossed his face. “It’s totally safe, compared to some of the other projects I’ve worked on. But NASA took one look at the environmental impact statement and, and . . .” His shoulders began to shake; whether with laughter or tears, I couldn’t tell.