Monday, November 8, 2010

LOX and Bagels

Mary Sherman Morgan at North American Aviation in 1956. Photo Source: Mary Sherman Morgan Blog.

Just when you think everything has been said about the history of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station ...

As previously mentioned, I'm in training to serve as a volunteer docent at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum at Launch Complex 26.

The "star of the show," so to speak, is the history of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite in space, launched atop a Jupiter-C rocket from LC 26 on January 31, 1958.

Click the arrow on the above image to watch a newsreel report of
the Explorer I launch from LC-26 on January 31, 1958.

Wander the hallways — well, hallway — of the blockhouse and you can read all about the rocket, its payload, and the people behind it. They're names familiar to history, from President Eisenhower to Dr. Wernher Von Braun and Dr. James Van Allen.

But you won't find Mary Sherman Morgan.

The launch literature tells us that the rocket used a mixture of liquid oxygen (LOX) and Hydyne as the fuel in the first stage, which was powered by a descendant of a German V-2 engine. These engines typically used a mix of LOX and alcohol.

I'd never heard of Hydyne, so I did some Internet research and discovered, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

It seems the first-stage engine wasn't capable of enough thrust to successfully place the Explorer 1 payload into orbit, using the LOX and alcohol mix. Time was a concern, because the Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik 1 into orbit on October 4, 1957 and there was a perception that the United States had fallen behind. The engine couldn't be redesigned as Von Braun's team had promised a late January 1958 launch.

The problem was contracted out to North American Aviation's Aerophysics Laboratory. Ms. Morgan, the only female engineer, invented "a 60/40 mixture of Unsymetrical Dimethyl Hydrazine (UDMH) and Diethyline Triamine (DETA)," according to an article by her son, George Morgan.

What to call it? Here's what George wrote:

Mary wanted to call the new fuel "Bagel" so people could say the Redstone was powered by "LOX and Bagel." The Army did not share her sense of humor, and instead named it "Hydyne."

Explorer 1 was the only time Hydyne was used in the launch of an American rocket.

There's no mention of Mary anywhere in the museum. Asking around, I've yet to encounter anyone who's heard this story. According to her son, Mary herself may be to blame:

"I do not want to see my name in print. You will not write articles about me — not while I am alive."

Those were my mother’s words to me just after her 80th birthday when I was so na├»ve as to suggest it would be a good idea if I wrote a magazine article about her contributions to American rocketry. When I pressed the issue further she became belligerent, even angry. This was a woman who cared nothing for notoriety, a true anachronism in today’s celebrity obsessed culture.

Mary Sherman Morgan was a woman who shunned publicity, and valued her privacy more than life itself. She hated celebrity, and detested those who sought after it. To put it another way, she was the exact opposite of that avid publicity hound, Wernher Von Braun.

George wrote that after she passed away, he asked the Los Angeles Times to publish her obituary with a mention of her "Bagel" invention that made history. The Times didn't believe him. His revenge was to write a play titled Rocket Girl about his mother's life and career.

Today I performed my first "solo" tour of the complex. I told the group about Mary Sherman Morgan and her "Bagel" fuel. None of them, of course, had ever heard of her. For all I know, this was the first time her name was even mentioned in the place she helped make famous.

I assure you, it won't be the last.

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