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August 4: Mary Sherman Morgan, Rocket Scientist

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Mary Sherman was born to Michael and Dorothy Sherman on a small farm near Ray, North Dakota in 1921. She graduated from Ray in 1939 as Valedictorian and went on to college at Minot State University majoring in chemistry.

When World War II broke out, most men joined the service creating a shortage of chemists and other scientists. Mary was noticed in her chemistry classes and offered a job at Plum Brook Ordnance Works in Sandusky, Ohio. Short on money, Mary decided to postpone her degree and take the job. But before she could take the position, she had to pass a top-secret security clearance, since Plum Brook manufactured explosives for the war. The plant ended up producing one billion pounds of munitions during World War II.

When the war was over and after years of designing explosives for the military, Mary got a job working for North American Aviation based in California. She was soon promoted to Theoretical Performance Specialist where she calculated the performance of new rocket fuels. Out of nearly 900 engineers in the field, Mary was the only woman, and one of only a few that did not have a college degree.

North American Aviation was contracted to make powerful fuels to propel rockets into earth orbit. With Mary’s expertise and experience, she was soon named technical lead for the project. Her work resulted in a new fuel called Hydyne, which was much more powerful than previous propellants. This new fuel powered three Jupiter C rockets and launched America’s first satellite into orbit on January 31st, 1958, bringing the United States into the Space Age.

While working at North American Aviation, she met and married George Richard Morgan, an Engineering graduate from Caltech and they had 4 children.

On this date in 2004, at the age of 82, Mary Sherman Morgan passed away. Throughout her life, Mary was very reserved and did not talk about her accomplishments. At her funeral, former coworkers told her family that Mary had singlehandedly saved America’s space program.

Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson

Cosmos Magazine, June 20, 2021, Mary Sherman Morgan, Rocket Girl.
Book, Rocket Girl, The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, Americas First Female Rocket Scientist by George Morgan.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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