North Dakotans played a vital role in the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union

Today's "Did you know that?" column is the first installment in a series about North Dakotans who were instrumental in the space race

Curt Eriksmoen online column signature
Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

FARGO — North Dakotans played many major roles in the U.S. space race. They designed rockets, invented the necessary rocket propellant to lift satellites into orbit, created and manufactured the satellites and other payloads carried into orbit, administered the entire U.S. space program, and provided the necessary medical care and advice for the astronauts while they were in orbit. Because of its small population, North Dakota has also provided a disproportionately high number of astronauts.

The first essential needs for space travel are rockets capable of reaching outer space. The A-4 rocket, invented by Wernher von Braun, was the world’s first long-range guided rocket at the time. Von Braun was a young German aerospace engineer who, during the 1930s, was busy building bigger, better and more powerful rockets. With his introduction of the A-4 in 1941, he had a rocket capable of traveling over 150 miles on a prescribed course. The four technologies for the A-4 were large liquid-fuel engines, supersonic aerodynamics, gyroscopic guidance, and rudders in jet control.

Since Germany was involved in World War II, some of Adolf Hitler’s military commanders convinced him that the A-4 was the perfect prototype for a valuable weapon that could launch bombs on unsuspecting vulnerable targets many miles away. With a few adaptations, the A-4 became the V-2 ballistic missile that Nazi Germany used to bomb London and other faraway cities. The V-2 rocket proved that it could carry a relatively small object (a bomb) a great distance, but a strictly vertical flight of a great distance would require a rocket with a stronger thrust capacity.

Von Braun and his team of scientists began a series of tests on vertical lift-offs of the V-2 and, in June of 1944, launched the first rockets to reach space. Outer space is defined as “an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level.” Although the rockets reached space, these rockets “didn’t achieve the altitude necessary to be regarded as sub-orbital spaceflights.

When it appeared Germany would be defeated in the war, Hitler feared that the rocket technology would become available to Germany’s enemies and be used against him. To prevent this from happening, he instructed SS troops to gas all technical men concerned with rocket development. When Von Braun learned of this, he and many of his technicians fled to Austria and, on May 2, 1945, surrendered to American forces. After being interrogated he, and about 1,600 other German scientists, engineers and technicians were brought to the U.S. to work for the U.S. Army on its missile program.


In 1952, Von Braun was contracted by Rocketdyne and put in charge of the Redstone Missile Project to develop good dependable rockets. The rockets they built were good, but after some of them blew up, Von Braun realized that the fuel comprised of 75% ethyl alcohol, 25% water, and an oxidizer (a substance that releases oxygen) was the problem. They needed a better propellant and the North American Aviation Company was brought in to develop a better fuel. The lead person for this project was Mary Sherman Morgan who invented the fuel, Hydyne, that solved the problem. Some scientists credit Morgan for single-handedly saving America’s space program. She is also called “the first female American rocket scientist.”

North Dakota native Mary Sherman Morgan is often referred to as “the first female American rocket scientist.”
Contributed / © George Morgan / Frame © Swindler & Swindler @folio art

Mary Genevieve Sherman was born Nov. 4, 1921, on a farm near Ray, in North Dakota's Williams County. She graduated as valedictorian from high school in 1940 and then attended DeSales, a Catholic college because it was reported to have a good chemistry department. While she was a sophomore in college, America became involved in World War II, and a recruiter from the Plum Brooke Ordinance Work began searching for chemists and other scientists to work for them in the war effort. PBOW was the world’s largest producer of TNT and a recruiter for that company came to DeSales inquiring about any outstanding chemistry students, and he was put in touch with Morgan.

Morgan worked for PBOW during the war and after it was over, she was hired by NAA to work on developing rocket propellants. She became the top scientist in that area, but she was told that because she did not have a college degree, she was not allowed to be given the title of chief engineer. Of the 900 engineers at NAA, Morgan was the only female, and some have speculated that she was denied the title because she was a woman working in a field dominated by men.

In 1956, Morgan led a team of engineers to create a fuel (Hydyne) that could be used in a Redstone rocket which would give it enough power to lift a rocket into orbit. The first Hydyne-powered Redstone flight took place on November 29, 1956. Meanwhile, a space race officially began early in 1957 when both the U.S. and the USSR made statements announcing they planned to launch artificial satellites. The USSR shocked this country when they successfully launched Sputnik into orbit on October 4, 1957. After several more successful U.S. test flights using Hydyne, the U.S., on January 31, 1958, successfully launched Explorer 1, the first satellite put in orbit by the U.S. By that time, Morgan had retired from NAA. She died Aug. 4, 2004.

On Nov. 21, 1957, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) established the Special Committee on Space Technology to coordinate various branches of the U.S. government, private companies and universities to develop a space program. In 1958, NACA became the National Aeronautics Space Administration.

NACA was founded in 1915 and its primary obligation was to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. In 1929, it became apparent to one of NACA’s physicists that the agency was not adequately fulfilling its obligation. Pearl I. Young, the first female professional at NACA, “recognized the shortcomings of technical writing and the lack of a systematic approach to preparing technical documents.” She personally conceived and implemented a highly successful technical writing system that “became famous for its thoroughness and accuracy, and became the rock upon which NACA built its reputation as one of the preeminent aeronautical research institutions in the world.” What she implemented was especially critical when NACA established its space program.

Pearl I. Young.jpg
Pearl I. Young, a graduate of the University of North Dakota, is pictured in NACA's Langley Instrument Research Laboratory, circa 1929.
Contributed / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pearl Irma Young was born on Oct. 12, 1895, in the southeastern corner of Minnesota and was raised on a farm southeast of Rugby, North Dakota. She attended the University of Jamestown for two years and then transferred to the University of North Dakota, where she graduated with honors in 1919 with majors in physics, chemistry and mathematics. She then taught physics at UND for two years before applying for a position at NACA in 1922.

Young was hired to work in the Instrument Research Division which designed, constructed, calibrated, and repaired virtually all the instruments carried on aircraft. After her observation of the poor quality of technical writing in the documents put out by NACA, Young established a new office with qualified staff to thoroughly review all drafts for consistency, logical analysis, and accuracy. Each draft was checked and rechecked before it was released for distribution or publication. In 1943, NACA published Young’s "Style Manuel for Engineering Authors" which served as the guiding document for authors at NACA laboratories.


Young took a leave of absence from NACA from 1947 to 1957 to teach physics at Pennsylvania State College, now Pennsylvania State University. She then returned to NACA as a technical literature analyst. When NACA became NASA in 1958, Young continued her work until 1961 when she retired to become a professor of engineering physics at Fresno State University. Young died June 16, 1968, and in August 1995, a new auditorium at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was named in her honor. In 2014, that facility was replaced by a new Pearl Young Theater.

(Next week we will continue the story about North Dakotans who were instrumental in the Space Race.)

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
What To Read Next
Get Local