Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Rocket Girl

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

George D. Morgan

Prometheus, 2013 

George Morgan's book about his mother is fascinating, and especially so to me since I coauthored a history of the era in question that Morgan used a source.  I just couldn't get comfortable with his way of telling the story.
To say the most important thing first, Mary Sherman Morgan's invention of hydyne was a critical contribution at a critical time in the Space Race.  The new fuel enabled the Jupiter C, a booster based on Wernher von Braun's Redstone missile, to put Explorer I into orbit.  And none of us knew anything about it. My coauthor Erika and I spent years researching this era and never heard of her.  In part it was because the government documents of the time never mentioned who at her company produced the idea, and in part it was because she was so stone-silent about it for the rest of her life.  Still, I feel bad that we didn't include her in our book The First Space Race
To say she was a woman in a man's world is putting it mildly: there were 900 men and Mary.  Her determined climb from a dirt-poor North Dakota farm to her work in complex chemistry makes for a story that should have been told long ago.  I never knew the fuel problem was as difficult as it was: Mary and her colleagues were not allowed to vary the flow rates, change any machinery, or tinker with anything except the chemistry itself. Yet they had to produce a significant performance increase, and thanks to her encyclopedic knowledge of chemicals and ability to intuit and then calculate how they would behave, they did. The chapter on engine tests was fascinating, and the one on Explorer I's launch is an oft-mistold tale that's presented accurately here: I'm glad The First Space Race helped Morgan do a great job with it.
Morgan's story of his own generation of the family, including the discovery of who his mother really was for a major part of her life and meeting a sister Mary once gave up for adoption, is very touching.
There are some unfortunate factual errors. Specific impulse is a measure of efficiency, not power. The Jupiter C had four stages, not three.  The short-range Redstone was far from being an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and no knowledgeable person would have referred to it as one.  No Redstone was never loaded with sand, although the top stage of one Jupiter-C variant was, and that tiny "scaled Sergeant" fourth stage certainly could not have held a ton of it.
Morgan's technique of novelizing the story, with made-up characters and dialogue, severely damages the book's value as history because it's not clear what is fiction and what is fact.  I realize the approach arose out of the dearth of first-person information (again, Mary never said a word even to her children about her work) and the book's origin as a stage play: in a play, there is no choice but to invent at least some dialogue. It can lead readers to believe, though, that Russia's Sergei Korolev was determined to beat ex-enemy von Braun into space, whereas the authoritative sources on Korolev, James Harford and Asif Siddiqi, give no hint of that. The melodramatic reaction of a fictitious Army colonel to having a woman on the project needlessly amps up the sexism when the factual situation was dramatic enough.
I'm glad Morgan wrote this book.  He's a good writer, and this story cried out to be told.  I just wish he'd done it a little differently.

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