Science Culture

How America's First Female Rocket Scientist Saved the U.S. Space Program

Someone had to analyze reams of complex chemical data and devise a new rocket fuel. Mary Sherman Morgan was just right for the job.

August 16, 2018

Science Culture Chemistry Engineering Physics Scientists Nightstand

Big data is a hot topic, and for good reason. But it’s not an entirely new one. Although today’s scientists collect and analyze an unprecedented volume of information, researchers in earlier eras have had their own versions of big data to wrangle. Consider Alan Turing and the team that cracked the Enigma code during World War II, for example, or the hundreds of specialists who worked for the U.S. space program as “calculators,” crunching numbers for the Mercury mission, among many other projects.

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In their new graphic nonfiction title Rockets: Defying Gravity, Anne Drozd and Jerzy Drozd remind readers that, regardless of era, Mary Sherman Morgan deserves a place in the big data hall of fame. In 1956, amid the space race, U.S. space program leaders sought to adapt the Redstone rocket, developed by Wernher von Braun and his team, to reach suborbital space. That, however, would require a new kind of fuel. Without it, engineers would be caught in a vicious redesign circle: Achieving the necessary thrust would require more fuel, which meant the rocket would have to be lengthened to carry it. But a bigger rocket would need yet more fuel to achieve adequate thrust—requiring the rocket to be made larger still, and so on.

An expert on rocket propellants, Morgan was charged with assembling and analyzing a complex set of chemical and engineering data to come up with a solution. The resulting new fuel, hydyne, was used for the Jupiter-C launch as well as six Juno I launches. Juno I booster rockets could reach orbital space, and in 1958 the inaugural Juno I launch carried Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite placed into orbit.

Although Morgan didn't receive much recognition during her lifetime, a colleague spoke up after her death to say that Morgan had "singe-handedly saved America's space program" and to issue an urgent plea: "Don't let her die nameless."

The latest release in First Second Books’ Science Comics series, Rockets aims for young readers (ages 9–13, specifically), but it’s an informative, rollicking read that’s enjoyable for adults too. The book’s discussions of aerospace navigation (which explain roll, pitch, and yaw); orbital mechanics and space rendezvous (which touches on Buzz Aldrin’s breakthrough research); and early methods of trajectory stabilization (which describes how gimbal-mounted gyroscopes, paired with potentiometers, kept rocket trajectories true) are exquisitely clear—and great fun too.

The passage below—narrated by a group of barnyard animals and their pal Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, because why not?—introduces readers to Morgan and the chemical conundrum she solved to develop hydyne. Thanks to this new fuel, the U.S. space program gained momentum, allowing it to eventually pull ahead of its Soviet rivals.

(For more on big data and astronomy, see our September–October 2018 special issue. And for additional coverage of books about big data, check out a review of two recent titles about powerful, problematic algorithms and an author interview about big data and democracy.)

From Rockets: Defying Gravity. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Drozd and Jerzy Drozd. Published by First Second Books. All rights reserved.



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