Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Unsung Star of the Space Race: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Unsung Star of the Space Race: Books

Article excerpt

Margaret Weitekamp applauds a filial tribute to a woman who helped get the US off the ground.

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

By George D. Morgan Prometheus, 325pp, Pounds 11.83 ISBN 9781616147396 and 7402 (e-book) Published 9 July 2013

Mary Sherman Morgan raised a fine son. Actually, she raised five children: two boys and three girls. But before she retired to attend to her family full time, she worked as a chemist, first during the Second World War for Plum Brook Ordnance Works, testing the purity of nitric acid used in explosives, and later for North American Aviation, where she invented the liquid fuel hydyne (the first-stage propellant for the Jupiter-C rocket that boosted the first successful American satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit in 1958). Morgan's eldest son, George, has written a compelling memoir of his mother's role as the first female rocket engineer.

But Rocket Girl is not a straightforward biography; it is a detective story, a family tale and a historical reconstruction all blended together with the aim of resurrecting the record of this secretive but significant woman. George grew up to be a playwright, and Rocket Girl first appeared as a stage play produced at the California Institute of Technology in 2008. He describes this book, which draws on that play, as creative non- fiction. Faced with inconsistent family lore and an even more gap-ridden documentary record, he has relied on his dramatist skills to fill in the story. The current holder of North American Aviation's archival record, Boeing, "chose not to participate" (one senses the frustration in the final Author's Note), which necessitated the invention not only of dialogue, which would have been lost to history regardless, but also some participants' names and other details.

The result reads much more like a novel than a history (someone really should option the film rights), offering insights into characters' thoughts, long exchanges of specific dialogue and vivid descriptions of long-ago settings. …

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