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Books | Ace of space

Books | Ace of space

Posting in Aerospace

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

Like fellow aerospace pioneer Howard Hughes, Mary Sherman Morgan (1921-2004) was militant in safeguarding her privacy. The heroine of Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist (Prometheus Books, $18) would be livid to learn that she's the subject of a new book.

Especially one written by her son.

George D. Morgan asserts that while his mother did top-secret government work as a Theoretical Performance Specialist at North American Aviation (now part of Boeing), she created the fuel that enabled America to save face in the space race against Russia.

The liquid propellant, Hydyne, powered the U.S. satellite Explorer I, which launched on Jan. 31, 1958, nearly four months after Russia shocked the world with Sputnik.

"She was a genius at everything she did," George Morgan writes. "But at nothing else was she more skilled than her prankish, stealthy campaign of personal self-erasure."

Upon Mary Sherman Morgan's death, the Los Angeles Times declined to publish the obituary George submitted because, "They said they had checked the claims in my obit article and could not verify any of them," he writes.

Based on the book's accounts of conversations the author had with his father, George Richard Morgan -- another Northern American Aviation rocket scientist -- and his mother's few surviving colleagues, I believe that Mary Sherman Morgan did invent Hydyne. While defying her wishes seems like an insulting filial tribute, George Morgan is a proud son who wants his mother to have a legacy.

Rocket Girl began as a play, originally produced at Caltech in 2008. Adapting a play into a book is unusual and difficult. "It took me years to convince myself that this book could be written," he writes. "As memoirs go, it was full of potential bear traps and land mines."

In his author's note, George Morgan sheepishly admits to fabricating characters, scenes and dialogue. This is less jarring with works of stage and screen, where embellishment is expected -- an inserted exposition, a condensed timeline, a reshuffling of events to heighten the stakes.

This is no memoir or even biography. Even Morgan describes the book as "creative fiction." Fiction is fiction. And writing fiction is fantastic, unless you're attempting to educate an audience with facts. By sandwiching his core, data-driven story in between slices of make-believe and Wikipedia citations, George Morgan undermines his goal of getting his mother's achievements added to actual history books.

Any way you look at it, he brandishes a wayward pen. Reminding readers that rockets and satellites -- as exciting as they are -- were crafted for a destructive purpose, the author applies a repulsive comparison. "Like throwing a baby shower for a girl who had been gang-raped, the whole circus would turn a blind eye to what got them there in the first place."

In the end, I'm torn. I didn't enjoy the book, which was mostly dull with a herky-jerky plot and too many pages devoted to characters other than Mary Sherman Morgan. Her son casts her as a woman who was exceptional in many ways -- despite graduating from high school three years late, dropping out of college, and watching most of her co-workers leave their jobs when World War II veterans returned to claim them, she was professionally unstoppable. During much of her tenure at North American Aviation, she was the lone woman working alongside 900 men.

After she retired in her mid-30s, Mary Sherman Morgan apparently was a very cold wife and mother who made her lost sense of purpose palpable to everyone. This seemed to upset me more than it upset George. Unintentionally, I bring my own person biases into any review I write. I have a fantastic mom who happens to know nothing about rocketry.

Photo: NASA/MSFC/Fred Deaton

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure