Rocket girl

The successful new movie Hidden Figures brought to mind a recent book, Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist.

The California condor makes unexpected appearances at the beginning and end of this story. Here are some excerpts from the book.

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Mary Sherman Morgan was born in 1921 in North Dakota. Her interest in the California condor began early:

As she watched the sky, ten-year-old Mary imagined a large condor lazily gliding above her. It was just a crow, but she imagined it to be a mighty condor. The previous week her teacher had taught the class a lesson about large North American birds. Mary was especially fascinated by the California condor – the largest bird in North America.

“Is it only found in California?” she had asked.

“No,” her teacher had replied. “Some condors can also be found in Mexico.”

“Mexico is too far. I’ll have to go to California.”

The condor reappears while Morgan is in college:

Mary saw movement above her and looked up just in time to catch a hawk gliding in for a landing on one of the turrets atop the college roof ….

Why couldn’t you be a California condor? Mary answered her own question out loud. “Probably because we’re in Ohio.”

By the 1950s, Morgan was an engineer in California working on the development of rocket engines. A section of the book is devoted to her first visit to the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory where rockets were test-fired:

Mary looked skyward, searching the sandstone knolls on both sides of the road. She had hear that North America’s largest bird sometimes made its home in these hills.

“What are you looking for?”

She was surprised – one of the men in the back seat had spoken an entire sentence.

“Condors,” she replied. “California condors.”

“Oh yeah. They’re up here.”

That got her attention and she turned around to face him….

“Have you ever seen one?”

He shook his head. “But they’re around. The Feds come up here once in a while looking for them. Biologists. People like that.”

“I saw one once.” The driver had come alive, too. “We were doing a test on the NAVAHO engine a couple years ago. A condor circled over the blockhouse compound for about twenty minutes, then flew away.”

“If any of you see one, please point it out to me. Okay?”

The three men nodded, then resumed their passive, nonverbal composures.

At the book’s close, a California condor plays a significant part. I won’t give this away but will quote briefly the reactions of Morgan and another engineer when they see the condor:

“Holy Mother of God.”

“She’s beautiful.”

Ned turned to Mary. “How do you know it’s a ‘she’?”

“I – I don’t. That’s not the point …”

From halfway across a continent, the California condor inspired a young Mary Sherman Morgan, who went on to be a pioneering scientist. Rocket Girl is a thoughtful biography that illustrates the positive impact the California condor can have on a human life.

Rocket Girl, written by George D. Morgan, was published in 2013 by Prometheus Books.