PEOPLE: Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race
When she was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her something very special: the first traditional Cherokee dress that Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross, would ever own.
Because Ross, after a lifetime of high-flying achievement as one of the nation’s most prominent women scientists of the space age, wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian.
In the past 12 months, the museum has received a bequest of more than $400,000 from Mary G. Ross, who died in April 2008, only three months shy of her 100th birthday
“She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time,” said her Oneida friend Norbert Hill, recent past chairman of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Board of Trustees, “and a proud woman who never forgot where she was from.”
Mary G. Ross—whose Cherokee lineage includes leaders and teachers and who herself now figures in that lineage as the Cherokee rocket scientist—spent her century of life looking mostly into the future.
Born in 1908 on her parents’ allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. It had been 70 years since her ancestor led his people over the Trail of Tears. She excelled in math, and her first career was as a young high school math and science teacher. By 1937, Ross remembered asking herself, “Are you going to go out and see anything of the world, or are you going to stay in Northern Oklahoma?”
She went to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, at age 29 in 1937, and later went to Santa Fe, N.M., as the girls’ adviser at a new school for American Indian artists. In the summers Ross pursued a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado. While there, she took every astronomy class the school had, and read every book about the stars. The clear night sky in Colorado fascinated her.
She was hired by the Lockheed Corporation as a mathematician in 1942 and worked on improving the aeroelasticity of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane—the first to go more than 400 mph.
By 1948, Ross was on the ground floor of what would become the space race. In 1952 Lockheed asked her to be one of 40 engineers in what became known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American. Most of the theories and papers that emerged from that Lockheed group, including those by Ross, are still classified.
Around the time of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, Ross moved into the public eye. In 1958 she appeared on the television show “What’s My Line?” It took contestants many guesses before they realized that the smiling woman in a V-necked, sleeveless black dress in fact, as the caption read, “Designs Rocket Missiles and Satellites (Lockheed Aircraft).”
One San Francisco-area newspaper article from 1961 called Ross “possibly the most influential Indian maid since Pocahontas,” and noted that she was “making her mark in outer space.” She told the interviewer, “I think of myself as applying mathematics in a fascinating field.”
Another article from the time noted that Ross, who had yet to see a rocket blast off, believed that women would make “wonderful astronauts.” But she said, “I’d rather stay down here and analyze the data.”
Ross retired from Lockheed at age 65 in 1973, and turned her attention to the next generation of Native Americans and women in engineering.
“To function efficiently, you need math,” she said later in life. “The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”
One of the few regrets she ever mentioned was that she had spent so much of her life apart from Indian people.
At 96, Ross was looking ahead again—to the long-anticipated Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. In the opening procession, she stepped out of her electric wheelchair on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and walked for half a block.
“She felt she was a part of history being made, again,” said friend Norbert Hill.
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service