| The Promethean: So...who was Mary Sherman Morgan?
GEORGE D. MORGAN: Mary was a girl who grew up during the depression on a small farm in North Dakota. Her experience with extreme poverty and an abusive family made her dream big. She wanted to get out into the world and achieve great things, however it wasn't until her high school years that she set her sights on a career in science and chemistry. Despite being enrolled in grade school almost three years behind her peers, she graduated valedictorian of her high school class. Since her parents put a very low value on education, Mary had to literally run away from home to go to college. She was the kind of person who made goals, and then focused on them. She was the kind of person who would not let anyone stand in her way. These traits served her well when it came time to work in the male dominated world of science.
Mary Sherman Morgan's high school graduation photo, May 1940. Courtesy of G. Richard Morgan
P: What was it like growing up with two rocket scientists for parents?
GM: When children grow up in any family they assume their life is normal. I grew up assuming everybody had brilliant parents -- parents who had the answer to any question about almost any subject. This was the normal for me, my brother, and my two sisters. But it was often very frustrating. Brilliant people tend to have little patience for those who are not as smart as they are -- just imagine how frustrated they were with us kids! I don't think they were well suited to be parents. It was a lot like having two Spocks for parents -- everything had to be logically reasoned out. And if any of us wanted to participate in non-science related activities they had trouble understanding why. Doing things just for fun was an alien concept to them. When we went on vacations there always had to be some learning experience associated with it -- otherwise they felt there would be no point in going. What was it like growing up with rocket scientists for parents? Let me put it this way: They never once said "I love you" to any of us kids. It wasn't part of their nature.
P: You always knew your mother was involved in America's space race. What made you decide to tell her story?
GM: My desire to tell her story began with a refusal by the Los Angeles Times to publish her obituary. Because there was no official historical record of my mother or her achievements, the newspaper could not verify anything in my obit article. It was frustrating to have a mother who should have been famous, but wasn't. A world that cared little for women scientists, combined with my own mother's unwillingness to have her work lauded publicly, resulted in having Mary left out of the historical record. One day I opened my L.A. Times newspaper and read a half-page obituary about the man who invented the Oscar Mayer weenie whistle. For me, that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. I decided to write a play about Mary and have it produced at a science-themed university. To their credit, Caltech signed on early to handle the premiere production.
Mary Sherman Morgan with a quartz crystal she dug up in the Mojave Desert. Courtesy of G. Richard Morgan
P: How is your book Rocket Girl different from your play of the same name?
GM: The book covers Mary's life from when she was about eight years of age up until the launch of Explorer I, America's first satellite. It co-mingles with her story space race anecdotes that are going on simultaneously in other parts of the world. The play, on the other hand, focuses narrowly on the four or five month period during which she invented hydyne, the rocket fuel that pushed that satellite into orbit. It's mostly a one-set play and takes place in the Office of Research and Development at North American Aviation in the mid 1950's.
P: This is a fascinating memoir of your mother's life and career. What were some of the challenges you faced writing the book?
GM: On this project everything was a challenge. I was writing a book about a woman who rarely talked about herself or her accomplishments and who worked for a company that not only had done a very poor job recording those accomplishments, but who refused to hand over to me any historical records they did have. Just before publication they did provide a few photographs, which I appreciate, but they never provided a single word of historical data on Mary Sherman Morgan. Their excuse was that it was company policy not to reveal anything about former employees -- even to family members of a deceased individual. It's policies like that that must drive historians crazy.
Fortunately I was able to find seven or eight former co-workers who were still alive, and they provided me with a great deal of information.
P: With so much media attention surrounding America's first rocket launch, and the struggles leading up to it, it almost seems impossible for Mary to have been left out of the history books. How or why do you think that happened?
GM: As a writer I believe that history belongs to writers.
The Explorer 1 post-launch press conference, William Pickering, James van Allen, and Wernher von Braun. Courtesy of NASA
Everything you and I know about history is the result of some writer valuing it enough to write it down -- to make a record of it. Recorded history therefore is a collection of stories and facts that writers have specifically chosen to record for posterity. They choose to put some things in; they choose to leave some things out. There is, after all, just so much a writer can write about in a finite lifetime -- we all have to make choices and hope for the best. And because we have limited time and resources, we writers tend to focus on the "big" names of history. Why write about a farm girl from North Dakota when you can write about a handsome, flamboyant, gregarious, humorous, bigger-than-life, character like Wernher von Braun? On closing night of the play Rocket Girl I told the audience how displeased I was with the film The Right Stuff. The movie gives a great deal of credit for the Mercury space program to the Mercury Seven astronauts -- and none at all to the engineers and technicians who built those rockets. The movie is certainly entertaining, but Tom Wolfe's story is a perfect example of how some people, despite their level of contribution, are considered more important than others when it comes to the written historical record.
P: You've uncovered some significant secrets in your research. How has your life changed as a result of this book?
GM: There's nothing quite like discovering, at the age of 57, that you have a secret sibling-someone whose identity and very existence has been intentionally and carefully hidden from you your entire life. How does one respond to such news? I'm still trying to get my head around all of this. What if I had never decided to write the book? I would never have found out -- I would have lived and died never knowing the truth -- never knowing I had three sisters instead of two. For the first few weeks after I uncovered this secret I felt like my whole life had suddenly become the plot of a Lifetime movie. Life goes on, of course, and these discoveries have not affected me greatly. I still get up, go to work, and come home, just as before. More than anything this experience has answered the big question all us Morgan kids pondered for decades: Why does our mother never want to talk about her past?
P: What do you hope people will learn from reading Mary's story?
GM: If they learn something, that would be great. But more than that, I hope they will be inspired. Mary Sherman Morgan was a very flawed woman, yet those flaws only make her life all the more inspirational. We naturally expect that people born with advantages and privilege will excel. My mother showed the world that a person can come from the poorest and most disadvantaged of beginnings and still rise to achieve great things. I'll never forget when the curtain closed on opening night of the play. A woman and her teenage daughter came up to me and thanked me, gushing over how the story had been so inspiring to them. That's what I hope to achieve with this book.
P: Thank you, George!