Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft approaching Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in 2015. New Horizons relies on hydrazine thrusters designed by Olwen Morgan’s team at Aerojet Rocketdyne. 

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft approaching Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in 2015. New Horizons relies on hydrazine thrusters designed by Olwen Morgan’s team at Aerojet Rocketdyne. 

Four Billion Miles And Counting

Olwen Morgan ’76 built the engines that power NASA’s space fleet to the outer reaches of the solar system—and beyond.

By Maureen O’Hagan | March 7, 2019

In 1610, Galileo pointed his homemade telescope skyward and was astonished to discover that Saturn seemed to have “two companions,” one on either side, looking almost like ears. It was the first observation of Saturn’s rings.

Four centuries later, a spacecraft named Cassini reached the distant planet. Olwen Morgan ’76 sat awestruck as she saw the first clear pictures of those rings. “When those images started to come in,” she said, “they were just gorgeous.”

Her work helped Cassini make the 2.1-billion-mile trip. In a four-decade career at a company called Aerojet Rocketdyne, in Redmond, Washington, she specialized in monopropellant hydrazine thrusters that guide spacecraft on their journey. These engines—her babies, really—have helped spacecraft reach every planet in the solar system, including Pluto and Ultima Thule.

Her knowledge is so encyclopedic that the crew at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sometimes ring her up for guidance, even as the spaceships are hurtling through space and she’s, say, grocery shopping.

“She has this huge knowledge base,” says retired executive Jon Schierberl, who worked with her for decades. Her stature in the field is all the more impressive considering she started her career as an utter anomaly. “She had to break some really thick ice,” he adds.

Olwen wouldn’t have gotten there without a strong scientific background, of course. But if you ask what’s really behind her success, she won’t talk about chemistry or physics or math, the things that usually come to mind when you think of rocket science. Instead, she’ll talk about words.

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Growing up in Seattle, Olwen wanted to become a zoologist, but abandoned that dream when her father, a metallurgist, said no. So she came to Reed, majored in chemistry, and graduated at a time when big Northwest employers such as Boeing and Weyerhaeuser weren’t doing a lot of hiring.

After a stint in a chem lab, she landed in 1978 at what was then called Rocket Research (now Aerojet Rocketdyne). The company supplies rocket hardware to NASA, the military, and the private sector, which uses it for GPS, weather, and communications satellites. She was the first woman hired in an engineering role at the company—this despite the fact that she was a chemist, not an engineer. “I’m pretty sure I got my job because I was a woman,” she says.

Like all the newbies, she spent her days following orders, performing tests, and taking notes, hopping on a company bike to pedal from one building to another. She soon became fascinated with hydrazine thrusters. Hydrazine is a chemical fuel. When it comes in contact with a catalyst, it decomposes, unleashing a plume of exhaust. Imagine blowing up a balloon and pinching the opening closed. “Now open it and you’ll have yourself a little rocket engine that’s zipping all over your office.” It flies, she says, “because it’s pushing against its own plume.”

In space, the thrusters are typically fired in short bursts, shifting the trajectory of the spacecraft ever so slightly. A burst that’s too long can put the ship thousands of miles off track over the course of a long mission.

Her first year on the job, a unique opportunity arose. A senior engineer was supposed to write a lengthy report, but he balked. “The engineers will do just about anything to get out of writing,” she says. When he dragged his feet long enough, she stepped up. She was young, but she knew she had the chops: she earned them working on her Reed thesis with Prof. John Hancock [chemistry 1955–89]. “He was old-school,” she recalls; he demanded clean, clear, well-reasoned papers. She also gives credit to Prof. Marsh Cronyn ’40 [chemistry 1952–89] and Prof. Tom Dunne [chemistry 1963–95]. 

The ability to write, she says, “was my ticket to ride.” With her command of technical detail, she was able to provide the clear, precise documentation that is vital to an enterprise like space exploration, which involves thousands of people working for scores of organizations.

Of course, there were challenges. Schierberl and Olwen remember working on a project with scientists from Japan. When the Japanese learned they were partnered with a woman, “they were sure they’d been insulted,” she says. The Japanese men directed questions only to Schierberl, even though she had the technical expertise. But eventually they came to rely on her. “She had gained such credibility they would ask me to bring her in when critical decisions were being made,” Schierberl says.

Olwen retired in 2016, but Aerojet Rocketdyne has brought her back for short-term contracts, most recently for a stretch in December. As she wound down her last week of work, she reflected on the NASA missions in which her work played a role. Pathfinder. Insight. Cassini. The list goes on. She spoke of her friends at JPL, who watch readings coming in from billions of miles away, and sometimes call for her help interpreting it. There was the time, on Black Friday 2011, that JPL worried the Mars Curiosity engines might be overheating. They called her while she was shopping at Costco. Olwen pulled her cart to a quiet corner, asked some questions, and was able to reassure the engineer that the engines were fine. 

Then, she thought about Magellan, which reached Venus in 1990 using a complicated array of hydrazine thrusters she helped engineer. Tapping on her keyboard, she pulled up two photos of Venus, one from the Pioneer mission in 1978, and the other from Magellan.

Pioneer’s photo is a watercolor blur—a circle filled with smudges. Magellan’s is a fiery orange, revealing Venus as a fantastic world mottled with light and dark whorls, with bubbles and flares and long, clear lines. Volcanoes, lava plains, craters, ridges—Magellan showed it all.

This—“exploring worlds beyond our own, learning things, seeing things we’d never be able to see,” Olwen said, smiling—this is what her work is about.

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