Mary Sherman Morgan: The best kept secret in the space race

An illustrated portrait of Mary Sherman Morgan

Source: Photograph © George Morgan/Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio Art

Anna Demming reveals the scientist who invented the fuel that powered the first US satellite into orbit, yet died with barely a trace on record of her achievements

On 4 October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The world’s first ever satellite orbited the Earth for 21 days, singing its success with a beeping signal that anyone on the planet could tune into. Within less than a month Sputnik 2 launched, further extending the Soviets’ lead on the rest of the world in aerospace technology. For the US, meanwhile, orbital space rockets remained out of reach – their rocket technology programme had been primarily focused on military missiles.

When the US Explorer 1 successfully soared into orbit on 31 January 1958, it was the success story the country needed, salvaging the credibility of US science and engineering and giving it a footing in the space race. Yet Mary Sherman Morgan, who invented the rocket fuel hydyne, remains shrouded in obscurity.