Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist, by George D. Morgan

When George D. Morgan submitted his mother’s obituary to the Los Angeles Times following her death, it was rejected because the paper said his statements about her life could not be verified. NAA, North American Aviation, had not kept the meticulous records one might expect of an aerospace company devoted to scientific and technological research and a history of the company (by a retired engineer, drawing mostly on his own memories due to the lack of preserved records) would not be written for another few years. Prompted in part by that fact, and in part by a natural desire to know more about his mother’s career before all the living memory of it was lost as her colleagues likewise aged and died, George set out to unearth his mother’s history, personal and professional. She had been a scientist during the paranoia of the McCarthy era, had invented the propellant used to fuel the rocket that launched the first US satellite, and had even as an old woman refused to talk about her work with her children. George, a playwright, was motivated by the obituary refusal to research and write a successful play about his mother’s accomplishments. That play, Rocket Girl, led in turn to further revelations about her private life.

This is not a conventional biography. George clearly looks on himself more as a storyteller than as an historian and admits that the story is “creative non-fiction”. Although the historical facts are true, he presents the episodes of Mary’s life in a novelistic style, with narrative and imagined dialogue and emotion, interspersing this with accounts of his own search for information and childhood memories of the engineers he meets again as elderly men in the course of his researches. He also contrasts the life of Mary, a girl who was only able to start school at age eight because social services showed up at the house and threatened her father with jail if she did not, a girl who, having won entrance to college, had to sneak away from home to take up her place, with that of her contemporary, the privileged German Werner von Braun, who would build rockets for Hitler and later be celebrated by the Americans as the father of their space program. In an afterword, George meticulously documents where he has had to invent minor details, such as names of unknown technicians, to serve the flow of his narrative. The overall effect, though not as rigorous a history as one might like, is none the less an important testament to the work of a female scientist whose significant contributions during the Cold War space race were in danger of being forgotten by the historical record.

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