STEM Women Hall of Fame: The First Female Rocket Scientist

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: BBC

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Mary Sherman Morgan

  • Born: November 04, 1921 in North Dakota
  • STEM Legacy: America's first female rocket scientist.
  • Historical context: the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik I and II in 1957 sent the United States into a frenzy to catch up in the Cold War-era "space race," which prompted the government to turn to nearly all-male team of rocket scientists at North American Aviation where Morgan worked.

When America's first female rocket scientist died in 2004, the Los Angeles Times refused to print the obituary her son and future biographer wrote, claiming the details of her life and career couldn't be independently verified. Growing up, George D. Morgan wasn't aware of his mother's significant place in women's STEM history, either, largely because her rocket science work was shrouded in Cold War-era secrecy. For that reason, George did what any good son would do and wrote a play and an entire book about her to ensure that her legacy could be "independently verified" for posterity.

Courtesy: Goodreads

One of the most fascinating details of Mary Sherman Morgan's professional biography is that she never received a college degree because she dropped out during World War II to take a job at an Ohio munitions factory. After the war ended, she began working at North American Aviation where she was not only a rare aspiring rocket scientist without a college education, but also eventually the only woman among a team of 900 analysts. "She didn't have any education in it and eventually she got to the point that she was so good at it," her son George recounted, "she soon became the very best person when it came to designing and calculating new rocket propellants..."

In the late 1950s, Morgan made her mark with her development of the rocket fuel Hydyne, which successfully launched the United States' first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958. The lead engineer of Explorer I, Wehner von Braun, received much of the credit for effectively saving the American space program (NASA would be formed months later in July 1958), but Morgan didn't mind being overlooked, as her son explained to the BBC after her death:

"She really did not care about celebrity or being famous. In fact, she was just the opposite of Werner von Braun. My mother had done such a good job of erasing herself from existence by not allowing anybody to write about her, not allowing anybody to do anything that might make her famous, she was so good at preventing that from happening that after she passed away, nobody could verify that she ever even existed, and I hope that she'll be remembered as a pioneer in this idea that a woman could work in high technology fields, have a family, who could do both and be successful at both."

George acknowledges that his mother's biography crosses the line into creative nonfiction every now and then because Mary Sherman Morgan and North American Aviation were both so great at keeping their top-secret space work top secret, and neither left behind many clues to this notable STEM "first."

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